The Curse of Capistrano/Chapter 12
SHORTLY AFTER DAYBREAK THE FOLLOWING morning there was considerable tumult in the plaza at Reina de Los Angeles. Sergeant Pedro Gonzales was there with a score of troopers, almost all that were stationed at the local presidio, and they were preparing for the chase of Señor Zorro.
The big sergeant's voice roared out above the din as men adjusted saddles and looked to bridles and inspected then-water bottles and small supplies of provisions. For Sergeant Gonzales had ordered that his force travel light, and live off the country as much as possible. He had taken the commands of his captain seriously—he was going after Señor Zorro and did not propose to return until he had him—or had died in an effort to effect a capture.
"I shall nail the fellow's pelt to the presidio door, my friend," he told the fat landlord. "Then I shall collect the governors reward and pay the score I owe you."
"I pray the saints it may be true," the landlord said.
"What, fool? That I pay you? Do you fear to lose a few small coins?"
"I meant that I pray you may be successful in capturing the man," the landlord said, telling the falsehood glibly.
Captain Ramón was not up to see the start, having a small fever because of his wound, but the people of the pueblo crowded around Sergeant Gonzales and his men, asking a multitude of questions, and the sergeant found himself the center of interest.
"This Curse of Capistrano soon shall cease to exist!" he boasted loudly. "Pedro Gonzales is on his trail. Ha! When I stand face to face with the fellow—"
The front door of Don Diego Vega's house opened at that juncture, and Don Diego himself appeared, at which the townsmen wondered a bit, since it was so early in the morning. Sergeant Gonzales dropped a bundle he was handling, put his hands upon his hips, and looked at his friend with sudden interest.
"You have not been to bed," he charged.
"But I have!" Don Diego declared.
"And are up again so soon? Here is some devilish mystery that needs an explanation."
"You made noise enough to awaken the dead," Don Diego said.
"It could not be helped, caballero, since we are acting under orders."
"Were it not possible to make your preparations at the presidio instead of here in the plaza, or did you think not enough persons would see your importance there?"
"Now, by the—"
"Do not say it!" Don Diego commanded. "As a matter of fact, I am up early because I must make a confounded trip to my hacienda, a journey of some ten miles, to inspect the flocks and herds. Never become a wealthy man, Sergeant Gonzales, for wealth asks too much of a man."
"Something tells me that never shall I suffer on that account," said the sergeant, laughing. "Yon go with escort, my friend?"
"A couple of natives, that is all."
"If you should meet up with this Señor Zorro, he probably would hold you for a pretty ransom."
"Is he supposed to be between this place and my hacienda?" Don Diego asked.
"A native arrived a short time ago with word that he had been seen on the road running to Pala and San Luis Rey. We ride in that direction. And since your hacienda is the other way, no doubt you will not meet the rascal now."
"I feel somewhat relieved to hear you say it. So you ride toward Pala, my sergeant?"
"We do. We shall try to pick up his trail as soon as possible, and once we have it we shall run this fox down. Meanwhile, we also shall attempt to find his den. We start at once."
"I shall await news eagerly," Don Diego said. "Good fortune go with you!"
Gonzales and his men mounted, and the sergeant shouted an order, and they galloped across the plaza, raising great clouds of dust, and took the highway toward Pala and San Luis Rey.
Don Diego looked after them until nothing could be seen but a tiny dust cloud in the distance, then called for his own horse. He, too, mounted and rode away toward San Gabriel, and two native servants rode mules and followed a short distance behind.
But before he departed, Don Diego wrote a message and sent it by native courier to the Pulido hacienda. It was addressed to Don Carlos, and read:
The soldiers are starting this morning to pursue this Señor Zorro, and it has been reported that the highwayman has a band of rogues under his command and may offer battle. There is no telling, my friend, what may happen. I dislike having one in whom I am interested subjected to danger, meaning your daughter particularly, but also the Doña Catalina and yourself. Moreover, this bandit saw your daughter last evening, and certainly must have appreciated her beauty, and he may seek to see her again.
I beg of you to come at once to my house in Reina de Los Angeles, and make it as your home until matters are settled. I am leaving this morning for my hacienda, but have left orders with my servants that you are to give what commands you will. I shall hope to see you when I return, which will be in two or three days.
Don Carlos read that epistle aloud to his wife and daughter, and then looked up to see how they took it. He scoffed at the danger himself, being an old war horse, but did not wish to put his womenfolk in jeopardy.
"What think you?" he asked.
"It has been some time since we have visited the pueblo," Doña Catalina said. "I have some friends left among the ladies there. I think it will be an excellent thing to do."
"It certainly will not injure our fortunes to have it become known we are house guests of Don Diego Vega," Don Carlos said. "What does our daughter think?"
It was a concession to ask her, and Lolita realized that she was granted this unusual favor because of Don Diego's wooing. She hesitated some time before answering.
"I believe it will be all right," she said. "I should like to visit the pueblo, for we see scarcely anybody here at the hacienda. But people may talk concerning Don Diego and myself."
"Nonsense!" Don Carlos exploded. "Could there be anything more natural than that we should visit the Vegas, since our blood is almost as good as theirs and better than that of others?"
"But it is Don Diego's house, and not that of his father. Still—he will not be there for two or three days, he says, and we can return when he comes."
"Then it is settled," Don Carlos declared. "I shall see my superintendent and give him instructions."
He hurried into the patio and rang the big bell for the superintendent, being well pleased. For when the Señorita Lolita saw the rich furnishings in the house of Don Diego Vega, she might the more readily accept Don Diego as a husband, he thought. When she saw the silks and satins, the elegant tapestries, the furniture inlaid with gold and studded with precious stones, when she realized that she could be mistress of this and much more besides—Don Carlos flattered himself that he knew the feminine heart.
Soon after the siesta hour, a carreta was brought before the door, drawn by mules and driven by a native. Dona Catalina and Lolita got into it, and Don Carlos bestrode his best horse and rode at its side. And so they went down the trail to the highway, and down the highway toward Reina de Los Angeles.
They passed folk who marveled to see the Pulido family thus going abroad, for it was well known that they had met with ill fortune and scarcely went anywhere now. It was even whispered that the ladies did not keep up with the fashions, and that the servants were poorly fed, but remained at the hacienda because their master was so kind.
But Doña Catalina and her daughter held their heads proudly, as did Don Carlos, and they greeted the people they knew, and so continued along the highway.
Presently they made a turning and could see the pueblo in the distance—the plaza and the church with its high cross on one side of it and the inn and storehouses and a few residences of the more pretentious sort, like Don Diego's, and the scattered huts of natives and poor folk.
The carreta stopped before Don Diego's door, and servants rushed out to make the guests welcome, spreading a carpet from the carreta to the doorway, that the ladies would not have to step in the dust. Don Carlos led the way into the house, after ordering that the horse and mules be cared for and the carreta put away, and there they rested for a time, and the servants brought out wine and food.
They went through the rich house then, and even the eyes of Doña Catalina, who had seen many rich houses, widened at what she saw here in Don Diego's home.
"To think that our daughter can be mistress of all this when she speaks the word!" she gasped.
Señorita Lolita said nothing, but she began thinking that perhaps it would not be so bad after all to become the wife of Don Diego. She was fighting a mental battle, was Señorita Lolita. On the one side was wealth and position, and the safety and good fortune of her parents—and a lifeless man for husband; and on the other side was the romance and ideal love she craved. Until the last hope was gone she could not give the latter up.
Don Carlos left the house and crossed the plaza to the inn, where he met several gentlemen of age, and renewed acquaintance with them, albeit he noticed that none was enthusiastic in his greeting. They feared, he supposed, to appear openly friendly to him, Since he was in the bad graces of the governor.
"You are in the pueblo on business?" one asked.
"Not so, señor," Don Carlos replied, and gladly, since here was a chance to set himself right in part. "This Señor Zorro is abroad, and the soldiers after him."
"We are aware of that."
"There may be a battle, or a series of raids, since it is whispered that now Señor Zorro has a band of cutthroats with him, and my hacienda is off by itself and would be at the mercy of the thief."
"Ah! And so you bring your family to the pueblo until the matter is at an end?"
"I had not thought of doing so, but this morning Don Diego Vega sent out to me a request that I bring my family here and make use of his house for the time being. Don Diego has gone to his hacienda, but will return within a short time."
The eyes of those who heard opened a bit at that, but Don Carlos pretended not to notice, and went on sipping his wine.
"Don Diego was out to visit me yesterday morning," he continued. "We renewed old times. And my hacienda had a visit from this Señor Zorro last night, as doubtless you have heard, and Don Diego, learning of it, galloped out again, fearing we had met with disaster."
"Twice in one day!" gasped one of those who heard.
"I have said it, señor." '
"You—that is—your daughter is very beautiful, is she not, Don Carlos Pulido? And seventeen, is she not—about?"
"Eighteen, señor. She is called beautiful, I believe," Don Carlos admitted.
Those around him glanced at one another. They had the solution now. Don Diego Vega was seeking to wed Señorita Lolita Pulido. That meant that Pulido's fortunes would soon be at the flood again, and that he might feel called upon to remember his friends and look askance at those who had not stood by him.
So now, they crowded forward, alert to do him honor, and asked concerning crops and the increase of his herds and flocks, and whether the bees were doing as well as usual, and did he think the olives were excellent this year.
Don Carlos appeared to take it all as a matter of course. He accepted the wine they bought, and purchased himself, and the fat landlord darted about doing their bidding and trying to compute the day's profits in his head, which was a hopeless task for him.
When Don Carlos left the inn at dusk, several of them followed him to the door, and two of the more influential walked with him across the plaza to the door of Don Diego's house. One of these begged that Don Carlos and his wife visit his house that evening for music and talk, and Don Carlos graciously accepted the invitation.
Doña Catalina had been watching from a window, and her face was beaming when she met her husband at the door.
"Everything goes well," he said. "They have met me with open arms. And I have accepted an invitation to visit tonight."
"But Lolita?" Dona Catalina protested.
"She must remain here, of course. Will it not be all right? There are half a hundred servants about. And I have accepted the invitation, my dear."
Such a chance to win favor again could not be disregarded, of course, and so Lolita was made acquainted with the arrangement. She was to remain in the great living-room, reading a volume of verse she had found there, and if she grew sleepy she was to retire to a certain chamber. The servants would guard her, and the despensero would look after her wishes personally.
Don Carlos and his wife went to make their evening visit, being lighted across the plaza by half a dozen natives who held torches in their hands, for the night was without a moon, and rain was threatening again.
Señorita Lolita curled up on a couch, the volume of verse in her lap, and began to read. Each verse treated of love, romance, passion. She marveled that Don Diego would read such, being so lifeless himself, but the volume showed that it had been much handled. She sprang from the couch to look at other books on a bench not far away. And her amazement increased.
Volume after volume of poets who sang of love; volumes that had to do with horsemanship; books that had been written at the dictation of masters of fence; tales of great generals and warriors were there.
Surely these volumes were not for a man of Don Diego's blood, she told herself. And then she thought that perhaps he reveled in them, though not in the manner of life they preached. Don Diego was something of a puzzle, she told herself for the hundredth time; and she went back and began reading the poetry again.
Then Captain Ramón hammered at the front door.