The Promise

by

 

Gail Manfre

 

 

 

CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN

 

CALM BEFORE THE STORM

 

As they distanced themselves from the Visconde de Estrada, Diego considered his “conversation“ with the Visconde, and the more he ruminated about de Estrada, the more he agitated he became. He did not realize how his rapid shift in mood affected his gait, but Selena did.

“Diego,” Selena hesitated, seeing the way her husband stalked away, ramrod straight, although he still kept his arm around her waist from his enfrentamiento with the belligerent Glorioso, “I am surprised that you did not disarm the Capitán and run him through with his own saber!”

“Do not tempt me, Selena,” he sharply retorted, not daring to glance down and subject her to the terrible look of scorn that marred his handsome face.

Her head snapped up at the ugly tone in his voice as she reached out to touch him. “Diego, do not allow that despicable porco to control your emotions.”

Diego reproached himself for using Selena to vent his anger with Glorioso. “Querida, lo siento mucho,“ he whispered into her ear as he pulled her close to him. “Enough discussion about that vermin Glorioso! Come on, first we shall satisfy your appetite, although I must say, I can not imagine where you put all of your food lately. And we still have to find the silver jewelry that you wanted to see,” he said as he gently kissed her again before they started back to the vendors’ stalls. “I liked the way the silver chain you tried on last week hangs on your neck, Selena.”

“And I love the man’s hands that placed the jewelry around my neck!” she whispered, lightly caressing his ear with her lips.

“Selena!“ Diego’s face redden slightly. “In public, I am scandalized, oh my!”

She lowered her eyes in mock regret. “Querido, I am...”

Diego could not maintain his composure and he chuckled. “Well, maybe just this one time, Selena! People will think we are newlyweds!”

As his laughter gaily colored the air around her and Selena de la Vega silently repeated the ancient prayer taught her long ago in Spain by the Franciscan nuns in thanksgiving to her Blessed Mother for answering her petitions, Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee....

 

ZZZZZZZZZZ

 

The morning of November 3, 1821 was full of sunshine, but with just a hint of fall in the cool temperatures. Here and there, the scent of marigolds from the Dia de Los Muertos’ fiesta still lingered, mixed with the appetizing aromas of hot chocolate and tortillas cooking for breakfast. The merchants were still retrieving the last wooden remnants of their stalls and any bits and pieces of fabric, paper, or any trash left behind by fiesta goers. They had to clear the area as soon as possible, for Capitán Glorioso’s lancers had told the vendors to be finished by nine o’clock a.m., and no one wished to displease the commandante on tax collection day.

Lancers from the Cuartel busied themselves with arranging appropriate tables for the collection of taxes from the caballeros, the tradesmen and finally the peasant class, which consisted of mestizos and full-blooded Indians. Visconde de Estrada, as was his usual daily custom, toyed with his bullwhip just outside his office, flicking it at the hitching post, at lancers walking by and at anything or anyone else within his eyesight. He ceased his playing and once again placed his ostrich plumed bicorn hat on his head, rechecked his reflection in his highly polish cavalry boots, and marched further into the cuartel’s yard to commence the day’s business.

“Open wide both gates, Sergeant Garcia! And inform me immediately when the whipping post the carpenter promised me would be finished before noon is ready!” Glorioso’s harsh voice echoed throughout the cuartel.

“At once, Your Excellency!” replied Sergeant Garcia.

“Open up both of the gates, Lancer Peldar!” Garcia shouted. “And lancers perform your duties quickly!” Dios! I hope not too many people will be unable to pay these taxes. The commandante’s temper has become worse since the day of his argument with the dons and townspeople, especially Don Diego. Garcia mused as he wiped his sweaty hands on his uniform.

ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ

As the citizenry began arriving to pay their taxes, the lancers directed them to three separate tables, one for each class represented in the pueblo. Glorioso sat in his ornate mahogany chair which had the flag of Spain carved into the expensive hand rubbed wood. He perversely wanted to watch the péons vainly protest that they could not pay their assessments. The Visconde, of course, would sentence them to prison, then he would spend hours devising new methods of torture to punish the scofflaws. He always won these financial battles for several reasons. If the prisoners survived their appointments with the public whipping post, he would sell their wretched hides to the mining companies or perhaps to some unscrupulous sea captains who were not very particular where or how they obtained a fresh supply of labor. On the other hand, if his temporary guests died during their jail terms, then no one really cared about the loss of a few scruffy péons did they?

If the tradesmen could not afford their taxes, he confiscated their goods and sold them at a considerable profit on California’s enormous underground economy, the black market.

The Commandante then had the former business owners escorted from the Pueblo to destinations unknown where they would become someone else’s problem. Visconde de Estrada never worried about collecting the assessments from the hidalgos. When they were unable to pay him in gold or silver, the caballeros would pay him in hides, wine or other commodities. Time for the tax collections to begin. I am sure there will be no shortage of amusement for me today! Glorioso crowed privately to himself. He settled into his very comfortable chair and ordered the collection process to begin.

Outside the gates of the Cuartel, everyone was lining up in their appointed places to deliver their bags of reales and pesos to enrich the Capitan’s already overflowing coffers. Visconde de Estrada decided to collect the taxes from the hidalgos first. Don Diego strode up to Glorioso and asked in a tight voice how much his father’s new taxes were now. Don Alejandro would not come in person, as was his usual habit because he could not trust himself not to strangle Glorioso on sight.

“Two hundred pesos is the de la Vega portion due for the special tax this year, Don Diego.“ said Corporal Mendoza.

“Muy bien, gracias, corporal.” Don Diego said as he placed the leather bag containing the de la Vega taxes directly before Visconde Estrada. The caballero smiled at His Excellency, revealing his perfectly white teeth. Diego’s grin had its usual unnerving effect upon de Estrada as the Visconde mopped his sweating brow with his pañuelo. Dios! Mocking me as usual, I see. the Visconde slowly counted to ten to maintain his composure.

The collection of taxes from the hidalgos only took about half an hour as they usually had the necessary funds to cover their levies. Of course, he was looking forward to the collection of taxes from the péons because he knew most of the pobrecitos had no money whatsoever especially after spending their last reales y centavos at the Dia de Los Muertos festival just yesterday. After yesterday’s verbal brouhaha in the marketplace this is just the diversion I need, de Estrada chuckled to himself.

The pueblo’s merchants today had no problem in producing their taxes. However, they were quite vocal in complaining about this new levy of sales tax and inventory tax. Since this was the second tax gathering this year that they had to pay, the shopkeepers knew that they would face the new year without any capital to buy manufactured goods for sale in the Pueblo. In particular, the modisto, Señor Roberto Ballarias, told the Commandante Glorioso that he would file a formal complaint with Señor Ulloa, the Minister of Finance in Monterey.

“You may certainly protest to Señor Ulloa, but I can assure you, Señor Ballarias, that it will do you no good. The Minister of Finance, the Marquis of Grenada, Hector Gonsalves Perez Ulloa, has promised me that I have complete authority and jurisdiction regarding tax matters. Do I make myself perfectly clear?" While the capitán spoke, he tapped his bullwhip against his free hand and focused his gaze on Señor Ballarias’s face.

Selena was standing next to Don Diego while Señor Ballarias continued to argue the onerous burden of these new taxes. “Diego, if the good tailor persists with this foolish talk,” she whispered to him as she tugged on his arm, “can you not reason with him, mi corazón?”

Her husband nodded. Diego, who by now knew what the limits of His Excellency’s patience were, and those boundaries were indeed quite narrow, saw his opportunity to defuse the situation and plunged in.

“Señor Ballarias,” the young de la Vega said as he placed one of his hands on the modisto’s shoulders, “no one questions your right to protest taxes, but there is a proper time and a place to do so. Trust me, señor.”

Señor Ballarias hesitated. He knew that if he decided to write a letter to the governor or make a trip personally to Monterey he would find no sympathy there for the people of the Pueblo the Los Angeles. Many others had protested taxes in the past and very few in Los Angeles; even some of the hidalgos had not been successful. Is the Governor really blind regarding the people’s plight here in our Pueblo? Or, as rumor in the pueblo had it, was the Marquis de Granada Glorioso’s secret business partner in the La Casa de Hospitalidad? Ballarias wondered to himself. He certainly did not want to end up in Glorioso's jail or receive a taste of the capitán’s whip or perhaps suffer both punishments.

“Muy bien, Don Diego, I shall take your advice,” Before Ballarias withdrew he cast one last contemptuous look at Glorioso and stalked back to his store.

"Ah. Your pardon, Commandante," said Sergeant Garcia, “but you did order me to...”

"What is it now Sergeant?" griped the Visconde. “There is much official business for me to conduct this day!” He continued to snap his bullwhip as he impatiently waited for Garcia’s response.

Sergeant Garcia leaned over so he could whisper into the capitán's ear. "The item that you requested from the carpenter is ready for your inspection."

"Excellente!" Glorioso enthused, clapping his white-gloved hands together. He ordered Sergeant Garcia to immediately install the brand-new whipping post. The carpenter rolled his wagon into the center of the marketplace and, with the lancers help, unloaded the whipping post and erected it under the supervision of Sergeant Garcia. A sullen hush fell over the crowd as they watched the soldiers install the captain's torture device.

Don Diego and Selena were glad they decided to wait around and observe the remainder of the tax collections. They particularly wished to gauge Glorioso’s reaction to the fact that the péons would be able to meet their assessments and not to beg for food or risk starvation this winter. Let the Commandante wonder where the people obtained the means to pay their taxes.

And thank the good Lord that the de la Vegas are financially secure and could help them! Oh, and guess I should thank that despicable Glorioso for giving El Zorro an extra two days to see that everyone had enough money for taxes and food! Selena said to herself. She nudged Diego. “I know what you are thinking, my husband.”

“Oh, you have now developed mind reading capabilities, quierda mia?” he chuckled.

“Diego, please, I am trying to be serious! Selena mildly protested.

“Lo siento mucho, dearest. Please continue,” Diego replied.

“As I was saying, you were thinking perhaps the capitán will leave the péons alone after this tax collection," replied his lovely wife

“Es verdad, si,” Diego wistfully answered.

Selena de la Vega sternly shook her head, "And perhaps the sun will stop shining, Diego!"

"I would have to agree with you Selena. One cannot expect a leopard to change it spots especially in light of the fact that Glorioso has decided to place the whipping post in the marketplace for everyone to see. I know that if I were a péon, I would certainly be frightened. We all know how much Glorioso despises the lower classes. He doesn't consider them to be human beings at all.”

Selena squeezed her husband’s broad chest. “The Commandante is in a class all his own, Diego. His domain is the ugly world of bigotry, hatred and monumental selfishness and I am proud to say I know I very little about such vile things!”

“Amen to that, sweetheart!” Diego agreed. “But I greatly fear that some of our beneficiaries, such as the Gonzalez’s family, the Videras and especially the Tiñtero brothers may have been a little too generous with their reales at the fiesta. At least that is what I heard from eaves dropping on a conversation between some péons yesterday.”

Selena rolled her eyes in dismay. “May Dios perish those thoughts. By the Blessed Virgin, will some men never learn not to over indulge?” Her handsome caballero tightened his arms around Selena’s waist and kissed the top of her head. “We shall certainly know in a little while. It is now time for the péons to pay their taxes.”

Doña de la Vega’s eyes glistened from unshed tears. “Diego, please do not think I am expressing a foolish women’s fear, but I truly have a bad feeling regarding what may happen today,” she did not resist when he elevated her chin to read the concern lurking in those velvety gray eyes.

“For me, for us?” he shook his head and elevated both eyebrows. “Surely not for your beloved husband, mi corazón. Do you not have faith in me, or in Our Savior, that everything in this life occurs for a purpose? “

Selena was pleased to see the frown he wore did not extend to those stunning hazel eyes. “Oh, Diego, you are more than a match for my wit! My answer to both of your questions is the same, ‘sí!’”

Nevertheless, Selena began fingering her rosary and saying the Glorious Mysteries, hoping against hope that her feminine intuition was wrong, very wrong.

 

END OF CHAPTER 27

 

 

 

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