Zorro & the Old Comandante
Eugene H. Craig
|After a long wait, here is another wonderful story from Eugene Craig. And it is definitely worth the wait. This has all the elements we have come to love and expect from his stories, plus much, much more. Bon appetit!|
He really wasn’t old, just old-fashioned. He walked slowly, some said leisurely, and he spoke softly. His face under his wispy beard was pockmarked. Some of his distracters called him one of the Three Musketeers because of how he wore his moustache, beard, and hair. His brown hair was longer than what had become the shorter military fashion in some circles. His eyes were an indeterminate blue because he always looked sleepy. He was the average height for a Spaniard in these times, about five foot four. Generally, he was very calm, but if angered, he would grasp the hilt of his saber and pull it out of the scabbard about two or three inches. Nobody was in any doubt that he would use it because it was rumored that he had once been a military instructor in the use of the blade.
Even his name was old-fashioned – Alfonso Fernando Francisco de las Fuentes y Alarcón. Like all the men in the officer corps before the time of Bonaparte, he was from the nobility. His polite manners seemed very formal and exaggerated to the young people who would smile knowingly behind his back after being introduced. His compliments were flowery and loaded with imagery that only the older women seemed to relish. On the other hand, he was also a crack shot with a pistol and an accomplished horseman. He knew all the old dances and enjoyed music in a contemplative manner although he professed to know nothing about musical instruments. He spent his spare time either reading books or, on occasion, in church. Some said he actually slept in church rather than prayed, but the fact that he was there, in and of itself, left a positive impression.
In contrast to his unassuming character and soft manner of speaking, he had a deep baritone voice. On the few occasions when he sang in church, the congregation would find themselves reduced to muteness as they listened to his voice that seemed to take them to a level of unattainable professionalism in its sheer level of control, sincerity, and grandness. An enthusiastic priest in Lima once remarked to him that he would love to have him as a choir of one. The captain seemed embarrassed at the compliment and remarked that God would prefer a fugue to a lone voice in the wilderness.
The army command in the colonies of Spanish América found this officer, who called himself simply Francisco de las Fuentes, an enigma, albeit a charming one. Well, it would be more accurate to say that those in charge considered him very eccentric. When asked for his analysis, his answers seemed more to confound than provide clarity and this was deemed inexpedient to those wanting quick solutions to difficult problems. Nevertheless, he seemed to have friends in high places in Spain and when he asked for very little, which was not very often, he got it. Those who held higher rank, and who did not know him, often puzzled over his influence, but his lack of ambition to use such influence was more to his benefit. The better ones believed he was just a modest man. So, when he transferred to the Américas, it was assumed that he had requested it.
The political turmoil in the American colonies of Spain was reaching such a level of crisis that the comandantes in California were summoned to a secret conference in Monterey to discuss the situation. The Comandante of Los Angeles, Capitán Enrique Monastario Sánchez, was one of those attending the conference at which the governors, both past and present, viceroys, and other officials of the Spanish colonial government would debate and decide, if they could, the political course for California.
It had been assumed that Sergeant Demetrio García López would temporarily take the place of his commanding officer in Los Angeles during his absence, but Capitán Monastario thought otherwise and requested that an officer be appointed until his return. His replacement had not yet arrived when he departed for Monterey, admonishing García of the consequences if he found affairs amiss in Los Angeles upon his return. Just before leaving town, Capitán Monastario had ordered the arrest of some local men for allegedly being in arrears of paying their taxes and other crimes, and had thrown them in jail. The very afternoon of his departure he ordered a few lashings of the ones who protested the most. The men's relatives came to the cuartel to plead on their behalf, only to be driven off by the soldiers. So, it was with a great deal of apprehension that the sergeant awaited the arrival of the officer, one Capitán Francisco de las Fuentes.
It was pouring rain and late at night when a lone rider arrived at the gates of the cuartel. His cape was soaked through and his hat was dripping from the downpour. The soldiers saluted him and made haste to summon Sergeant García who had gone to the tavern for a drink. Meanwhile the officer turned his mount over to a soldier and instructed him to dry the horse and put a blanket over him. He instructed another soldier to carry his leather travel bag into the Oficina del Comandante and he himself carried a small pouch inside. Within the pouch was a loaded pistol, kept dry from the rain, in case of an attack by bandits or who knows what kind of demons or spirits in human form.
The officer stepped onto the porch of the comandante’s office and paused to look at the green plants that decorated the entrance. He then opened the door and stepped into the candle-lit office. His eyes took in the small comforts that availed themselves to the man he was temporarily replacing, and he nodded. He stood there several minutes as if lost in thought before Corporal Reyes came in through the door behind him.
"Capitán de las Fuentes?" he inquired, saluting. He saw that the officer was dripping and had made no attempt to remove his cape or hat. "May I help you?"
The officer turned his gaze to the corporal. "Thank you, Corporal. My compliments for your courtesy." He shrugged off his wet garments as the soldier took them and hung them up on wall hooks near the door. "It is a little damp out, is it not?"
Reyes looked puzzled a moment. "It’s pouring rain, Señor Capitán!"
The officer had a twinkle in his eye, but he took the soldier’s comment in the innocence it was meant. "What is your name, son?"
"Reyes, Señor Capitán."
"Corporal Reyes, were you put in charge of the cuartel until my arrival?" the officer asked.
"Oh, no, Señor," Reyes responded. "Sergeant García is in charge. I mean, he was in charge until your arrival just now. He should be here very soon." The corporal paused. "Would you like me to show you to your quarters?"
"Yes, please do so," De las Fuentes replied. He looked around the office, noting the plants and paintings. "Your commanding officer has good taste. All he needs are some fresh flowers on the desk to go with the model cannon."
Reyes was puzzled by the comment. When officers said strange things it was best to remain silent. He led the way to the small set of steps that led to the comandante’s private quarters and opened the door. "In here, Señor Capitán."
The officer took the stairs slowly, entered his temporary quarters, and noted the darkness. "Get a few more candles to brighten up this room, won’t you, Corporal?" he asked, more in the manner of a casually issued order rather than a request. "And we’ll need a fire in the fireplace."
"Sí, mi Capitán!" Reyes responded, putting the officer’s bag down on the floor and walking out with the only candle, leaving De las Fuentes in darkness.
The officer sighed audibly and set his pouch down on the bed. His clothes were quite damp and he was beginning to sense a slight chill, the kind of chill that comes late at night when one feels tired, wet, and cold. There was barely any light coming in from the high room window that overlooked a street outside the cuartel. He began to unbuckle his saber belt when he heard a commotion out in the office. But rather than step back out into the other room, he listened to what the noise was all about.
The door to the comandante’s office banged open and Sergeant García entered the room breathlessly. "Comandante?" he queried looking around. All he saw was Corporal Reyes rummaging through a cabinet and it’s drawers.
Reyes glanced over at him and kept searching for the candles. He took out two and stuck them in candleholders while García watched him curiously.
"Corporal Reyes, what are you doing?" he asked in an impatient tone of voice.
"I’m looking for candles, Sergeant," Reyes answered.
"Well, where is the Comandante?"
"He’s in Monterey, Sergeant," the corporal replied, standing the candle holders upright on the shelf of the cabinet. He lit both of them from the tallow he carried.
"I know that, stupid. What I mean is, where is the new, the temporary Comandante?" García responded in exasperation. "Hugo told me that he just arrived."
"Oh," Reyes responded. "He’s in the Capitan’s quarters."
García looked toward the open door and saw that it was dark. "Did he go to bed already? It’s dark in there."
"Oh, he told me to get some more candles to light up the room."
"And you took the only candle in there?" García was annoyed. "There is plenty of light out here, baboso. Hurry up and I hope he’s not upset at your stupidity." He followed the corporal to the small steps that led to the comandante’s quarters.
Reyes tapped on the open door timidly. "Oh, Capitán, I have some more candles for you. May I come in?"
"Enter," was the calm baritone response. The voice was so authoritative and impressive in the dark that García imagined a bear of a man at least as tall as Capitán Monastario.
The officer was standing where Reyes had left him but had removed his saber and laid it on the bed. He watched García turn his bulk to get in through the door. As soon as he spotted the officer he came to attention and saluted. "Sergeant Demetrio García López reporting as requested, Comandante!" He then lowered his eyes considerably in surprise to the small man opposite him who was removing his gauntlets.
With the room lit, the officer looked around again. "At ease, Sergeant. I trust I did not disturb you late this evening?"
"Oh, no, Comandante. I was only over at the tavern having a little refreshment," García told him.
"Ah," De las Fuentes commented. "If it would not
trouble you too much, I would like to have a hot bath drawn up. I’ll
also need my spare uniform tended to. It got damp in the travel bag. And
what I’m wearing will need to be washed and dried."
"Yes, the carriage broke down and my box won’t get here for a day or so," the captain replied. "Perhaps Capitán Monastario has a few items I might borrow." He gestured casually for the sergeant to open the armoire door.
"Oh, sí, Señor, right in here." García opened the armoire and took out a robe for the officer. It was a long, luxurious dressing gown of blue with a dark collar.
De las Fuentes took the robe and held it up. "Tell me something, Sergeant García. Did the cuartel of Los Angeles inherit the tallest and stoutest men in the Spanish Army?"
"Oh, no, Comandante," García smiled. "Only Capitán Monastario and I are the tall ones. Everyone else is little." He watched the officer remove his tunic.
That statement amused De las Fuentes, but he was cold and wanted to retire for the evening. He handed García his uniform jacket. When he turned his back a moment, García handed it to Reyes who had finished lighting the logs in the fireplace. De las Fuentes watched Reyes fold his jacket. "Very well, Sergeant," the captain concluded, "I bid you a pleasant good evening."
Within an hour the new Comandante wrapped himself in the luxurious robe and got ready to climb into bed. The hot bath had restored his spirits and he felt warm and comfortable. His temporary command would be an interesting one, he thought, and the routine of Los Angeles would be like all the rest. He blew out the other candles and placed the last one by the bed. After he climbed in, he sat up and blew out the candle. He moved himself down under the sheet and pulled the blanket over his head. Within minutes he fell into a deep sleep.
The rain had slowed to a soft drizzle and the winds had died down for a short while. But outside, two eyes watched the light in the officer’s room go out and a black horse stepped out of the shadows and headed toward the cuartel.
He was riding down the wide dirt road on a sunny day and there was a parade going past him in the opposite direction. He saw a large number of people that he knew, from the king and his ministers, to several generals in the army’s high command. And mixed in with them was a herd of sheep and goats, camp followers and assorted rude people. He knew that he was headed in the right direction because he could see the church in the distance, but everyone else seemed headed in the other direction. He attempted to hail one of his former aides, "I say there, Machado, the wedding is at the church - over there. Where is everyone going?" But he was ignored.
Why is it that I always feel like Don Quixote but without my Sancho Panza? he thought.
He continued riding towards the church. It seemed deserted at first, but then he heard the voices of children and rode around the back towards the graveyard. When he got to the back he saw an assortment of youngsters all dressed in regal finery, dogs and cats, and even pigs racing all around as if playing games with each other. Even the animals were dressed elegantly. He tried to stop one of the children. "Dear child, where is the wedding party?" All he heard in answer was laughter. Then a dog walked on his hind legs and hailed him with the words "Welcome, Prince. Are you here for the wedding? But, hurry, the bride is about to be wed."
He dismounted quickly telling the dog, "This is my wedding, I’ll have you know. Where is my bride, Isabel?" The dog took him over to a table laden with food, drinks, flowers, and what looked like a pile of gold coins. Perhaps His Majesty left these for us, he thought. When he picked one up and examined it, it was nothing but a piece of lead that looked like it had been shot out of a cannon. Then one of the cats jumped up on the table and began to lap wine out of a crystal goblet. De las Fuentes watched him curiously thinking how odd it was that someone would train a cat to drink fine wine. He lifted up a glass himself but it tasted like water.
Then someone shouted, "Hail the bride and groom," and he looked up, smiling. To his consternation he saw his Isabel walking with another man and people were tossing flowers at them. What the devil! he thought and took out his sword to challenge the man.
Isabel, looking dazzling in white silk and flashing jewels, her long auburn hair peeking out from underneath her wedding train, waved at him. She was thin and her face was gaunt as in death. He was shocked by her appearance. "She almost looks dead," he said to the man at her side who held a staff in his hand and wore a carnival facemask. De las Fuentes no longer carried his sword in his hand, but a bouquet of beautiful flowers instead. Isabel stood there smiling as he approached. "Fernando, oh my Fernando," she croaked and took the flowers which suddenly looked dead.
"Isabel, dear," he asked her urgently. "What is happening? What happened to you?"
She began to laugh and poked him with the dead flowers. She continued hitting at him with the dead flowers and it began to annoy him because, damn, that hurt, and why should dead flowers start hurting?
He opened his eyes. It was dark. The blanket was still pulled over his head. He listened a moment as if he had heard something. Someone softly spoke the words "Comandante? Wake up! I need to have a word with you!" Then, there it was again, the unmistakable prick of the tip of a sword. De las Fuentes became very annoyed. Without even moving, he raised his voice. "My dear Sir, if you do not remove the point of your sword from my posterior, I shall become quite angry."
The result was instantaneous. The point was removed. "Ah, good," he acknowledged and turned over on his other side. He meant to resume his sleep when he felt the tapping of a blade against his shoulder.
De las Fuentes threw back the blanket and struggled to sit up in bed. Someone had lit a candle. To his surprise he saw the figure of a man dressed in black standing a few feet away with a sword in his hand. A mask covered half of the man’s face. He perceived that the stranger was just as surprised to see him. Obviously he was expecting someone else in the bed. The captain looked his visitor over and said in a grumpy voice. "My regular office hours are from nine in the morning to one in the afternoon. After siesta, they then resume from three to five. If I am not in, then you will have to make an appointment."
The masked man opposite him laughed lightly. "My humble apologies, Comandante. I was actually looking to have a word with Capitán Monastario."
"Humph," replied De las Fuentes. "If you were looking to rob the man, then you should know he is not here at the present. However, if you have come to rob me, you will find there are twenty-five pesos in the top drawer of the dresser. That is all that I have."
The man in black gave him a wide smile. "I’m pleased to see that Capitán Monastario’s replacement has a sense of humor. However, I am not here to rob you. I am sorry to have disturbed your sleep, but while I am here I need to inform you that there is an urgent matter at hand that you should give your immediate attention to in the morning."
"Oh, very well," De las Fuentes grumbled, straightening up a little but still managing to look very sleepy. "You only interrupted a bad dream and I keep on having it, over and over again, like a windmill turning endlessly. You’re not a sorcerer or a warlock are you? Why are you dressed in this costume?"
The man opposite him sheathed his sword. "No, Capitán, I am not a sorcerer. I am called ‘El Zorro.’ My mission here tonight is to seek justice."
"Ah, an assassin," De las Fuentes responded. "I should have known that someone, sooner or later, would try to dispose of me. I keep telling people the truth and they don’t want to hear it. I remember the time when our troops were outside of Madrid facing the French and I told General Ordañez that he needed to cover his flanks and he refused to listen because he was, and still is, a pompous ghoul of a man. Imagine, the seventh child of a degenerate aristocrat questioning me. Then there was the time I analyzed the reasons for the defeat of our armies in the North. Nobody wanted to listen and they still do not want to listen. They don’t want to listen because they don’t care and when you don’t care it is the beginning of the end of everything. I suppose if that is what you are here for, then I will tell you that I prefer to die in uniform - but it is quite wet which is most inconvenient. It really doesn’t matter whether you shoot me or dispatch me with the sword. At least I won’t keep having this damn dream."
The man called El Zorro listened with interest to his words and became solemn. "No, Capitán," he said at last. "I am not an assassin. As I told you, I am here to seek justice because there are some men in Los Angeles who are in need of it. I am impressed with your words about people caring or not caring to hear the facts. If you are the man that I think you are, then you will see to it that justice can be done while you are here."
"It’s been a long time since I heard the word ‘justice’ uttered with such passion," the officer commented, rubbing his eyes with his fists, yawning, and then blinking in the candlelight as it flickered, casting strange shadows on the walls. "As you must know, the word means one thing to some men and something else to others."
"That is true," replied the man in black. "But the entire concept of justice is about what is fair, what is righteous and what is good for the majority. Those who twist the word ‘justice,’ like Capitán Monastario does, mean something that benefits them first. That is not the kind of justice I am seeking."
De las Fuentes pondered the man’s words for some moments. "I see that you are a philosopher, Señor, and that is something that appeals to me because many men do not seek the truth, but seek, instead, to justify their own actions, twisting words and meanings into something they were never meant to be. Believe me, I have seen this done for years at Court and on the General Staff - tactics used by every scoundrel to advance himself and to smote others. It is something I have grown weary of watching and being unable to influence. However, since you are here, please do me the courtesy of handing me the writing board and quill. There is some parchment behind you in a drawer of the table. If you would be so kind, it would also help to have another candle lit."
The man, who called himself El Zorro, was amused by the ceremonious way he was actually ordered to obtain the items, but to expedite matters, he cheerfully complied with the request. "Here you are, Señor," he said, placing them on the table next to the bed. "And of course, the inkpot."
"Ah," responded the officer, taking the board and parchment and putting them on his lap over the blanket. "Why don’t we set that candle right here next to me. Although I would prefer to be introduced in a more formal setting, this will have to do. You may address me as ‘Capitán’ or ‘Capitán de las Fuentes’. You need not use my other titles." He paused, dipping the quill in the inkpot. "Now, give me the names of those you believe need justice and summarize the charges against them."
The man in black named the seven men who had been arrested by Capitán Monastario, the reasons for their arrests, and the extra punishments meted out to them. "These men are innocent of many of the charges and it would be expedient for you to release them as soon as possible," he told the man in bed who finished writing.
"Young man," De las Fuentes replied, "you must understand my position. These men have been arrested and charged. While I am noting your protestations of their innocence, I must proceed in a legal manner. Your recommendations, under circumstances that would be deemed inappropriate, must have substance to them. All you have done is to give me your interpretation of the events." He paused. "I cannot make a judgment at the moment based on your opinions. However, I suggest that the best thing to do is for other witnesses to appear at the cuartel tomorrow, or over the next day or two, to give testimony. I shall require the masters or employers of the men, character witnesses, reputable acquaintances, relatives, or even the local priest, to appear. On my part, I shall examine any records in this office that could deny or substantiate the charges."
"Capitán de las Fuentes, it is a pleasure doing business with a man who may be quite exceptional in the holding of this office," El Zorro told him.
The small man in the blue robe merely nodded as if not really believing the stranger’s words. "Ah," he replied. "Flattery will get you nowhere. I am used to all the sycophants at Court trying to tell me what I already know. A true officer of the Crown knows his duty, which is not only his, but a responsibility to others. It is the duty of every prince to see that the laws are applied justly and obeyed. If he does not do this, then he is a charlatan, an imposter, a fraud, and a disgrace to his heritage, to his parents, to his grandparents, and to all his ancestors since the beginning of time."
"I believe that would just about reach back to Adam and Eve, Capitán," commented the man in black with a cheerful smile. He was greatly amused by the antiquated style of speech of the man in the bed.
"Ah-hem, if you will allow me to finish, Señor Zorro," the officer continued. "It is ultimately a question of honor - and honor, separated from duty, and honor, separated from self, is and must be perceived as one in the same, and not at all a concept removed or distanced from present or past actions. It is the whole and the culmination of the parts of one’s nobility, and one’s sense of those blessings, which were placed upon this office and, yes, even upon the title, of one’s social obligations, to the vast and numerous essences of the population as a whole who, like children, are unable to make the kind of decisions, based upon careful and intelligent reflections of events, circumstances and historical context, which is thrust upon us, the noble class. We, therefore, must take seriously any and all sundry forms of punitive, silly, ridiculous, absurd, or fundamentally flawed accusations or insinuations against all members of the lower classes that could, may, or possibly, hinder or harm our social relations, so that they may be fundamentally discharged at our discretion, hopefully in an expedient or timely manner in order to ultimately satisfy or at least rectify some or all of the charges or accusations made against them. It is of the essence that social relations between the classes be dealt with in a manner that is deemed appropriate and impartial by the accused as well as the accuser and done in a manner that preserves the essence of law and, what is fundamental, the continuing respect for and obedience to the laws of the kingdom, of God, and of the social order under which we live and prosper. In addition…."
"Capitán de las Fuentes," interrupted El Zorro once again. "Pardon me, but you must admit that, under the circumstances, it would be expedient for me to leave now so that you could get a good night’s sleep. I think that I have supplied you with all the main points so that you can commence your research. That way you can start first thing in the morning. The speed at which justice is carried out is just as important as the fact that justice is accomplished, don’t you think ?"
"Ah," responded the officer. "I believe that I made that point. Why is it that you young people are so impatient? It seems that common courtesy and good manners evaporate like dew on the grass, like a shooting star across the heavens, or like the fragrance of a rose before it withers and dies. It’s practically disrespect, you know. And what’s worse is that those of noble blood have also picked up this modern disregard for exactitude and poignant representation. There was a time when learnedness and wholesome speech were considered to be an art form to be studied, mastered, and applied, so all of those, whose ears were touched by the words of erudition and knowledge, would know and understand the fact that they stood in the presence of those whose respect for, indeed worship of, the masters of literary accomplishment, could be expressed timelessly for the pleasure and appreciation of all…"
"I mean no disrespect, Capitán de las Fuentes, and I agree entirely with your sentiments!" the man in black grinned, backing away towards the open window. "I wish you more pleasant dreams between now and sunrise. Adios, Señor Comandante."
The man in the comandante’s bed watched his visitor depart with alacrity through the open window of his quarters and, afterwards, heard the departure of a horse from under the window. "’More pleasant dreams’ – humph," he snorted. "God willing – for a change." He set aside the quill, writing board and paper on the table next to the bed and sat back a few moments to contemplate all that had passed. He sighed and decided not to summon the guard and ask how it was that the window had not been secured or how it was that his nocturnal visitor had aroused no one else. He scratched at his wispy beard, at his moustache, and decided he would have the sergeant and corporal get all the records out while he had breakfast. As for going back to sleep, it was not something he looked forward to. It was that damn dream and it always came back, almost every night and he hated sleeping because it seemed to be the only dream he ever had. If he could only fall into a dreamless sleep so he wouldn’t be so tired the next day. He leaned back on the pillows and watched the tallow candle burn down a while before leaning forward and blowing it out. It was almost dawn when he finally fell asleep and into the escape that he had hoped for.