The Curse of Capistrano/Chapter 13
Love Comes Swiftly
THE DESPENSERO HURRIED to open it.
"I regret that Don Diego is not at home, señor," he said. "He has gone to his hacienda."
"I know as much. Don Carlos and wife and daughter are here, are they not?"
"Don Carlos and his wife are out on a visit this evening, señor."
"Is here, of course."
"In that case, I shall pay my respects to the señorita," Captain Ramón said.
"Señor! Pardon me, but the little lady is alone."
"Am I not a proper man?" the captain demanded.
"It—it is scarcely right for her to receive the visit of a gentleman when her duenna is not present."
"Who are you to speak to me of the proprieties?" Captain Ramón demanded. "Out of my way, scum! Cross me and you shall be punished. I know things concerning you."
The face of the despensero went white at that, for the captain spoke the truth and, at a word, could cause him considerable trouble and mayhap a term in cárcel. Yet he knew what was right.
"But, señor—" he protested.
Captain Ramon thrust him aside with his left arm and stalked into the big living-room. Lolita sprang up in alarm when she saw him standing before her.
"Ah, señorita, I trust that I did not startle you," he said. "I regret that your parents are absent, yet I must have a few words with you. This servant would deny me entrance, but I imagine you have nought to fear from a man with one wounded arm."
"It—it is scarcely proper, is it, señor?" the girl asked, a bit frightened. '
"I feel sure no harm can come of it," he said.
He went across the room and sat down on one end of the couch and admired her beauty frankly. The despensero hovered near.
"Go to your kitchen, fellow!" Captain Ramon commanded.
"No; allow him to remain," Lolita begged. "My father commanded it, and he courts trouble if he leaves."
"And if he remains. Go, fellow!"
The servant went.
Captain Ramón turned toward the girl again, and smiled upon her. He flattered himself that he knew women—they loved to see a man show mastery over other men.
"More beautiful than ever, señorita," he said in a purring voice. "I really am glad to find you thus alone, for there is something I would say to you."
"What can that be, señor?"
"Last night at your father's hacienda I asked his permission to pay my addresses to you. Your beauty has inflamed my heart, señorita, and I would have you for my wife. Your father consented, except that he said Don Diego Vega also had received permission. So it appears that it lies between Don Diego and myself."
"Should you speak of it, señor?" she asked.
"Certainly Don Diego Vega is not the man for you," he went on. "Has he courage, spirit? Is he not a laughingstock because of his weakness?"
"You speak ill of him in his own house?" the señorita asked, her eyes flashing.
"I speak the truth, señorita. I would have your favor. Can you not look upon me with kindness? Can you not give me hope that I may win your heart and hand?"
"Captain Ramón, all this is unworthy," she said. "It is not the proper manner, and you know it. I beg you to leave me now."
"I await your answer, señorita."
Her outraged pride rose up at that. Why could she not be wooed as other señoritas, in the proper fashion? Why was this man so bold in his words? Why did he disregard the conventions?
"You must leave me," she said firmly. "This is all wrong, and you are aware of it. Would you make my name a byword, Captain Ramon? Suppose somebody was to come and find us like this-alone?"
"Nobody will come, señorita. Can you not give me an answer?"
"No!" she cried, starting to get to her feet. "It is not right that you should ask it. My father, I assure you, shall hear of this visit!"
"Your father," he sneered. "A man who has the ill will of the governor. A man who is being plucked because he possessed no political sense. I fear not your father. He should be proud of the fact that Captain Ramón looks at his daughter."
"Do not run away," he said, clutching her hand. "I have done you the honor to ask you to be my wife—"
"Done me the honor!" she cried angrily, and almost in tears. "It is the man who is done the honor when a woman accepts him."
"I like you when you rage," he observed. "Sit down again—beside me here. And now give me your answer."
"You will wed me, of course. I shall intercede with the governor for your father and get a part of his estate restored. I shall take you to San Francisco de Asis, to the governor's house, where you will be admired by persons of rank."
"Señor! Let me go!"
"My answer, señorita! You have held me off enough."
She wrenched away from him, confronted him with blazing eyes, her tiny hands clenched at her sides.
"Wed with you?" she cried. "Rather would I remain a maid all my life, rather would I wed with a native, rather would I die than wed with you! I wed a caballero, a gentleman, or no man! And I cannot say that you are such!"
"Pretty words from the daughter of a man who is about ruined."
"Ruin would not change the blood of the Pulidos, señor. I doubt whether you understand that, evidently having ill blood yourself. Don Diego shall hear of this. He is my father's friend—"
"And you would wed the rich Don Diego, eh, and straighten out your father's affairs? You would not wed an honorable soldier, but would sell yourself—"
"Señor!" she shrieked.
This was beyond endurance. She was alone, there was nobody near to resent the insult So her blood called upon her to avenge it herself.
Like a flash of lightning her hand went forward, and came against Captain Ramón's cheek with a crack. Then she sprang backward, but he grasped her by an arm and drew her toward him.
"I shall take a kiss to pay for that," he said. "Such a tiny bit of womanhood can be handled with one arm, thank the saints."
She fought him, striking and scratching at his breast, for she could not reach his face. But he only laughed at her, and held her tighter until she was almost spent and breathless, and finally he threw back her head and looked down into her eyes.
"A kiss in payment, señorita," he said. "It will be a pleasure to tame such a wild one."
She tried to fight again, but could not. She called upon the saints to aid her. And Captain Ramón laughed more and bent his head, and his lips came close to hers.
But he never claimed the kiss. She started to wrench away from him again, and he was forced to strengthen his arm and pull her forward. And from a corner of the room there came a voice that was at once deep and stern.
"One moment, señor!" it said.
Captain Ramón released the girl and whirled on one heel. He blinked his eyes to pierce the gloom of the corner; he heard Señorita Lolita give a glad cry.
Then Captain Ramón, disregarding the presence of the lady, cursed, once and loudly, for Señor Zorro stood before him.
He did not pretend to know how the highwayman had entered the house; he did not stop to think of it. He realized that he was without a blade at his side, and that he could not use it had he one, because of his wounded shoulder. And Señor Zorro was walking toward him from the corner.
"Outlaw I may be, but I respect women," the Curse of Capistrano said. "And you, an officer of the army, do not, it appears. What are you doing here, Captain Ramón?"
"And what do you here?"
"I heard a lady's scream, which is warrant enough for caballero to enter any place, señor. It appears to me that you have broken all the conventions."
"Perhaps the lady has broken them also."
"Señor!" roared the highwayman. "Another thought like that and I cut you down where you stand, though you are a wounded man! How shall I punish you?"
"Despensero! Natives!" the captain shouted suddenly. "Here is Señor Zorro! A reward if you take him!"
The masked man laughed. "'Twill do you small good to call for help," he said. "Spend your breath in saying your prayers, rather."
"You do well to threaten a wounded man."
"You deserve death, señor, but I suppose I must allow you to escape that. But you will go down upon your knees and apologize to this señorita. And then you will go from this house, slink from it like the cur you are, and keep your mouth closed regarding what has transpired here. If you do not, I promise to soil my blade with your life's blood."
"On your knees, señor, and instantly!" Señor Zorro commanded. "I have no time to waste in waiting."
"I am an officer—"
"On your knees!" commanded Señor Zorro again, in a terrible voice. He sprang forward and grasped Captain Ramon by his well shoulder, and threw him to the floor.
"Quickly, poltroon! Tell the señorita that you humbly beg her pardon—which she will not grant, of course, since you are beneath speaking to—and that you will not annoy her again. Say it, or, by the saints, you have made your last speech!"
Captain Ramón said it. And then Señor Zorro grasped him by the neck and lifted him, and propelled him to the door and hurled him into the darkness. And had his boots not been soft, Captain Ramón would have been injured more deeply, both in feelings and anatomy.
Señor Zorro closed the door as the despensero came running into the room, to stare in fright at the masked man.
"Señorita, I trust that I have been of service," the highwayman said. "That scoundrel will not bother you further, else he feels the sting of my blade again."
"Oh, thank you, señor—thank you!" she cried. "I shall tell my father this good deed you have done. Despensero, get him wine!"
There was nought for the butler to do except obey, since she had voiced the order, and he hurried from the room, pondering on the times and the manners.
Señorita Lolita stepped to the man's side.
"Señor," she breathed, "you saved me from insult. You saved me from the pollution of that man's lips. señor, though you deem me unmaidenly, I offer you freely the kiss he would have taken."
She put up her face and closed her eyes.
"And I shall not look when you raise your mask," she said.
"It were too much, señorita," he said. "Your hand—but not your lips."
"You shame me, señor. I was bold to offer it, and you have refused."
"You shall feel no shame," he said.
He bent swiftly, raised the bottom of his mask, and touched lightly her lips with his.
"Ah, señorita," he said. "I would I were an honest man and could claim you openly. My heart is filled with love of you."
"And mine with love of you."
"This is madness. None must know."
"I would not fear to tell the world, señor."
"Your father and his fortunes! Don Diego!"
"I love you, señor."
"Your chance to be a great lady! Do you think I did not know Don Diego was the man you meant when we spoke in your father's patio? This is a whim, señorita."
"It is love, señor, whether anything comes of it or not. And a Pulido does not love twice."
"What possibly could come of it but distress?"
"We shall see. God is good."
"It is madness—"
"Sweet madness, señor."
He clasped her to him and bent his head again, and again she closed her eyes and took his kiss, only this time the kiss was longer. She made no effort to see his face.
"I may be ugly," he said.
"But I love you."
"Still I love you."
"What hope can we have?"
"Go, señor, before my parents return. I shall say nothing except that you saved me from insult and then went your way again. They will think that you came to rob Don Diego. And turn honest, señor, for my sake. Turn honest, I say, and claim me. No man knows your face, and if you take off your mask forever, none ever will know your guilt. It is not as if you were an ordinary thief. I know why you have stolen—to avenge the helpless, to punish cruel politicians, to aid the oppressed. I know that you have given what you have stolen to the poor. Oh, señor!"
"But my task is not yet done, señorita, and I feel called upon to finish it."
"Then finish it, and may the saints guard you, as I feel sure they will. And when it is finished, come back to me. I shall know you in whatever garb you come."
"Nor shall I wait that long, señorita. I shall see you often. I could not exist else."
"I shall in truth, now, since I have double reason. Life never was so sweet as now."
He backed away from her slowly. He turned and glanced toward a window near at hand.
"I must go," he said. "I cannot wait for the wine."
"That was but a subterfuge so that we could be alone," she confessed.
"Until the next time, señorita, and may it not be long."
"On guard, señor!"
"Always, loved one. señorita, adios!"
Again their eyes met, and then he waved his hand at her, gathered his cloak close about his body, darted to the window, and went through it. The darkness outside swallowed him.