Set Up for a Fall
Do Santos led Diego to the
parlor. The room seemed immense to the young man, who had become used
to living in the cramped quarters of a cargo ship. And it seemed almost strange to Diego to be speaking
Spanish, the language that do Santos had switched to as soon as they
entered the sala. Once
he had learned English, Diego had rarely spoken his native tongue, even
to his fellow Californianos.
“My name is Diego de la Vega, the son of Alejandro de la Vega
of the Pueblo de Los Angeles,” he formally introduced himself.
“I can assume that your father is a well positioned hacendado?” Santos asked.
Diego nodded the affirmative, although he was wondering what this man’s motives were. He decided he needed to make his desire up front and clear. “I only wish to return home,” said Diego. “I was taken from California by force and desire to return to my family. That is the only reason I would take the money that you mentioned,” he explained. “I did not destroy the opium because I wanted to get money from the Portuguese, I did it because I felt that forcing something like that on a people who have no desire for it is morally wrong.” Diego chose not to divulge his other reason to this man, whose cold, blue eyes seemed to be calculating his worth.
Santos said coldly. “The
Portuguese also have a big import trade in opium.
It is business, nothing more, nothing less.
And it is very lucrative business.”
He couldn’t believe this Spanish patrón
was talking moral justice with him.
The world was a cruel place, and the smartest and toughest
survived and grew rich.
Diego interrupted the
Portuguese envoy’s thoughts. Do
Santos’ cold business-like demeanor irritated him.
“It is murder,” he hissed.
“If you cannot help me then I will go elsewhere, Administrado.”
He started to stand up just as a servant came in with wine and
“Please calm down,” do Santos said quickly. “You only desire to return to your homeland and I am only too willing to help you. I have no desire to argue politics with you. Sit down, Don Diego.” Do Santos gestured to an ornately upholstered chair by a large picture window overlooking the plaza. “Have some wine. I would imagine that you didn’t get good Iberian wine on a British ship, eh? I did not say that I would not be able to help you, although it may be difficult, you being wanted by the British, you know.”
Diego sat down. He was getting the feeling that here was a man who could be trusted just about as much as that shark on Leiching’s boat, but he would have to see this through. He had no better options for getting home in the near future. Tasting the wine, he decided that the man was right, it was much better than anything he had had since he was kidnapped.
“Senhor de la Vega, unfortunately the reward for your deed is not enough to cover passage to California. I presume you have no capital . . . here, that is?” do Santos asked smoothly. He wanted to see just how much kowtowing this Spanish pup would really do.
“No, of course not,” Diego answered. “I said I was captured by force, then I was indentured to the captain of the China Star. I do have plenty of capital at home, however.”
Miguel do Santos shook his
head sadly. “No, no, no,
that is a risk we cannot take. Totally
against policy.” The Californiano
looked shocked. Do Santos
continued, seeing that the line he was about to offer would be taken
quickly by this homesick Spanish caballero.
“Perhaps there is a small service you can perform that will make up
the difference,” he offered.
As much as he was
beginning to dislike this Portuguese, Diego felt he had no choice but to
listen to do Santos’ proposition.
“What would you like me to do?” Diego asked suspiciously.
“First, shall we try a little test of blades, and then I can make my offer,” do Santos told him. He stood up and took his sword from its stand. “En garde,” he said to Diego who had not yet stood up.
Diego sighed and decided he would be glad to get home where most things seemed simple and clear-cut. Even the problem of Zorro is simple compared to all of this. Getting up with casual ease, he drew his blade and saluted the envoy’s assistant.
After a few minutes of advancing and parrying and testing his opponent’s skill, Diego decided that the man was fairly good in a flashy kind of way.
Do Santos, on the other hand, considered Diego an extremely cautious fencer. This man would never survive a duel with anyone even remotely good, he thought. The Portuguese wondered how he had lived long enough to gain the title of Opium Bandit. “Ah, senhor,” do Santos said, ending the bout. “That was a good test. Let us call this a draw.”
After they had sat down again, do Santos asked a question. “How would you feel about teaching the rudiments of fencing to a member of the envoy’s household?”
“You?” Diego asked sardonically, raising one eyebrow.
“No, of course not. I refer to the envoy’s son,” the Portuguese retorted with a scowl. “The envoy wants the boy to learn Old World skills while he is away from home. I am sure it would only take a short time, a few days while we arrange passage on a ship, and then you can sail home to California.” Teaching the envoy’s spoiled son was one of his jobs, but the brat was insufferable and do Santos couldn’t stand to be in the same room with him, much less teach him. If he could get this homesick Spaniard to do this little chore, then perhaps he could get the reward money from the British, as well as the money due de la Vega for his role in the destruction of the British ship. He could return home to Lisbon a fairly well heeled man.
After a few moments of pondering, in which time, Diego couldn’t for the life of him figure another way to get home, he said, “Very well, I will do it. You did say a few days, correct?”
“Of course, Senhor de la Vega,” he assured Diego. “Now let me take you to your quarters and I will have someone get you more suitable clothing. I will let the envoy know of your problem.” Do Santos showed Diego down a wide hallway, the walls of which were resplendent with pictures and other old world hangings, and to a bedroom that was every bit as large as his own at home. The furnishings reminded him of his home as well.
After he had left the Californiano gazing around the guestroom, Miguel do Santos proceeded to the sala, to report to the envoy. He was anxious to put his scheme into action, but he knew that as long as de la Vega’s thoughts were only on returning to California, he would not quickly realize what do Santos was planning. There would be time to contact someone in the British Trade Commission. Yes, indeed, time to become a very rich man. He tapped on the door of the envoy’s private salon.
“Enter,” came the reply. The envoy, Eduardo Batisto, was playing chess with his son. The boy’s gloating expression left no doubt that he was winning.
“Sir,” do Santos addressed the envoy. “I have talked to the one the Chinese are calling the ‘Opium Bandit.’ ”
“The Opium Bandit?”
Batisto looked startled. “It
was my understanding that he jumped ship during that last storm.
He couldn’t have possibly survived.”
“But he did and he is here asking for our help,” replied do Santos. “He is in actuality a Spanish colonial who still has an indenture to complete. He wants to go home. I told him we might intercede for him.”
“You presumed a great
deal, Miguel. You should
have consulted me first.”
“My apologies, senhor. I only assumed that the British being our rivals and since this man single-handedly destroyed the cargo of a British ship, we would have consideration of his dilemma. He is entitled to the bounty.”
“Hmm, yes, you are
right, Miguel. And I presume that the British do not know he is alive,”
“I do not know for sure,
but I assume not, senhor.”
“Very well,” said
Batisto “Get him settled
in a guest room. I will see
him this afternoon and see what I can do for him.
Anyone who could survive a storm at sea must have several of the santos
looking over his shoulder. What
is his name?”
“Diego de la Vega from Los Angeles, California. He is already settled in the guest room near the gymnasium.” Do Santos paused. “By the way, since the bounty would not cover the cost of sending him back home, I told him he could tutor Enrique in the finer points of fencing,” he said smoothly. “He agreed, though reluctantly. I tested him, he seems to have a pretty fair knowledge of the art.” He waited for the administrado to reply.
Batisto gave his assistant
a cool glance. “I am sure
we could have sent him home on the amount of the bounty, but it is just
as well, because you certainly haven’t been able to teach my son.”
Batisto sat rubbing his chin for a moment.
“Well, go ahead and hold him to it.
If he does well, then I will talk to the British envoy and see
what his disposition is in this matter,” Batisto said, waving his hand
Do Santos turned on his heel and stalked out, fuming at the slightly veiled insult.
Enrique Batisto, in the meantime, was becoming more and more incensed. “I never asked to be given fencing lessons,” he fumed. “I refuse to do it!”
“Enrique,” his father said wearily. “All those of the upper class need to know the finer skills. Just go see the man. Who knows, maybe he can teach you some manners, as well.”
“If he was indentured, then I doubt there are any manners he can teach me,” the boy retorted and then paused. His countenance grew thoughtful. “But I want to do something different, so maybe I will go and be entertained by this peon.”
Suddenly the envoy felt
very, very sorry for Diego de la Vega.
Diego had changed into the
clothing that had been provided to him and was pacing the room.
He had tried to lie down, but he was too restless.
All he wanted was to be on a ship heading east, but at this
point, the Californiano still did not know the disposition of the
trade commissioner. He
might not even want to help him and then to whom could Diego turn?
On his own, he wasn’t sure how much success he would have
procuring passage on a ship.
The white cotton shirt was plain but comfortable and roomy, and the dark red trousers, though not calzoneros, gave a great deal of freedom of movement. He still had on his own boots, and he had used his sash as a banda, wrapping it around his waist once, with one end hanging down the outside of his left leg as was customary for caballeros. He paused in his pacing and stood at a narrow window overlooking the plaza. A knock at his door, just before it opened, was the only warning he was given of his visitor.
Enrique looked carefully at the newcomer, as though trying to size him up before he took him down. “You are Diego de la Vega?” he asked disdainfully in Spanish. His gaze was measuring and haughty.
“Sim,” came the simple affirmative. “And I can presume that you are the envoy’s son?” was the question in return. The boy appeared to Diego to be about twelve-years-old, going on thirty-two.
“Sim,” the boy answered. “Why do you presume to dress as a caballero would? I was told that you were an indentured servant.”
Diego gazed at the envoy’s son, working hard to keep some measure of control. Normally he had a good rapport with children, but he could almost see why the envoy’s assistant wanted him to teach the boy. Somehow the Californiano felt that he had been given a job that do Santos, himself, was supposed to be doing. “What is your name, boy?” Diego asked in an icy voice. He knew that he and the spoiled child had to come to an understanding very soon, or he would not stay long, because he had no desire to be nursemaid to a spoiled envoy’s son. Santa Maria, give me the patience I need. He began to compare this trip to the voyage of Homer’s Odysseus. He only hoped it wouldn’t take as long to get back home.
“My name is Enrique Joao Paulo Batisto. My grandfather was a duke,” he said haughtily. “And how dare you address me in such a fashion!”
Diego laughed. “I will address you in the manner you deserve. If you act like a spoiled child, then I will treat you like one. If you act like a caballero or a duke then I will treat you like one,” Diego said. “It is as simple as that.”
The boy blustered some more. Diego folded his arms across his chest and waited for Enrique to vent some of his anger. When the boy had calmed down, Diego said, “Enrique, you do not want to take fencing lessons, I wish to go back to my homeland. Why not sit down and maybe we can work out something that will be beneficial and somewhat pleasant to both of us.”
The boy scowled, but he still sat down. Even though he did not like the situation in the least, he did have to agree with the Spaniard’s reasoning.
“Enrique Batisto, I am Diego de la Vega, the only son of Alejandro de la Vega, a wealthy landowner near the Pueblo de Los Angeles in California. Would that be reason enough to wear the banda?” he asked. “And who told you I was an indentured servant?”
Enrique was taken aback. When he finally answered, he ignored the first question. “Father’s assistant, Miguel do Santos,” the boy answered. “But why would he say that you were just a servant?”
Diego smiled grimly. “It is not necessarily what Senhor do Santos did tell you, it’s what he neglected to tell you. Essentially, he is right, I was, or rather am, an indentured servant. But what he neglected tell you was that I was kidnapped from my home and sold to the captain of the China Star,” Diego explained. Then he thought on the boy’s words for a brief moment. “Why is it that you dislike Senhor do Santos?”
“Because he is an insufferable pig. All he thinks about is how much he hates everything but Lisbon, and how quickly he can go home.”
Diego sighed, but said nothing. The boy’s assessment of do Santos was close to his own. “Enrique, perhaps we can compromise. You let me teach you a few basics and soon I will be on my way home to California, and you will not have to put up with my fencing lessons anymore.”
The boy thought and could
find no fault with the Californiano’s suggestion.
At the very least, Enrique was genuinely curious about this
servant/caballero, so he
“Do you have an empty
room where we can practice?” Diego asked.
“Yes, the gymnasium is the room next to yours. There is plenty of room there.”
“A gymnasium?” Diego
repeated in disbelief.
Enrique nodded and Diego said, “That will be most satisfactory.
Why not begin now, before it gets too warm.”
Enrique showed Diego the room. He was impressed. While it was not as big as the gymnasium at the university, Diego found it quite adequate. In one end was a fencing dummy, at the other end there was equipment that represented most of the pugilistic arts with which Diego was familiar. “Yes, it will be perfect. Let us get the practice foils and begin,” Diego said.
Diego started with the basic stances and showed Enrique how to place his feet. After he had taught the boy exercises to help him limber up, Diego had him practice the simple moves. He stood beside Enrique and patiently showed him the movements for thrusting and retreating, parrying and riposting.
Enrique watched and practiced, following the movements of his instructor, but after awhile, Enrique got tired of what seemed to him to be awkward positions. Leaning against the wall, he said, “Señor de la Vega, that is hard. My knees are tired. Can you show me how all of these positions work together?”
Diego studied the young
man and saw only genuine interest in the blue-gray eyes.
He smiled. “Very
well, but only if you promise to practice a bit more before supper.”
Enrique nodded, his face showing curiosity instead of the
petulance of before.
The boy watched,
entranced. Diego’s every
move seemed so graceful. What
was awkward to him was fluid and natural to the Californiano.
Enrique wanted to be able to do that and so he practiced the
stances again, this time with renewed attention to detail.
Finally as he rested the second time, he asked, “Don Diego,
could you show me more than just the stances?”
“Yes, you have worked hard. I suppose I could go through a routine or two.” Diego approached the fencing dummy in one corner and began. Soon he forgot about his surroundings as he concentrated on the pure joy of the exercises. In his mind he was back at the university working out mistakes and weaknesses, winning contests and earning trophies, and improving his skills. Diego felt the sweat trickling down his face and chest, but still he continued, feeling alive and vibrant. This was fencing for the pure joy of fencing, for the joy of doing something well. Diego continued in this fashion until he heard someone cough behind him. Turning quickly, he saw an older version of Enrique and quickly bowed an acknowledgement to the man he assumed was the Portuguese trade envoy.