The Curse of Capistrano/Chapter 7
A Different Sort of Man
DON CARLOS LOST NO time in hurrying out to the veranda again—since he had been listening and so knew what had happened—and endeavoring to placate the embarrassed Don Diego Vega. Though there was consternation in his heart, he contrived to chuckle and make light of the occurrence.
"Women are fitful and filled with fancies, señor," he said. "At times they will rail at those whom they in reality adore. There is no telling the workings of a woman's mind—she cannot explain it with satisfaction herself."
"But I—I scarcely understand," Don Diego gasped. "I used my words with care. Surely I said nothing to insult or anger the señorita."
"She would be wooed, I take it, in the regular fashion. Do not despair, señor. Both her mother and myself have agreed that you are a proper man for her husband. It is customary that a maid fight off a man to a certain extent, and then surrender. It appears to make surrender the sweeter. Perhaps the next time you visit us she will be more agreeable. I feel quite sure of it."
So Don Diego shook hands with Don Carlos Pulido and mounted his horse and rode slowly down the trail; and Don Carlos turned about and entered his house again and faced his wife and daughter, standing before the latter with his hands on his hips and regarding her with something akin to sorrow.
"He is the greatest catch in all the country!" Doña Catalina was wailing; and she dabbed at her eyes with a delicate square of filmy lace.
"He has wealth and position and could mend my broken fortunes if he were but my son-in-law," Don Carlos declared, not taking his eyes from his daughter's face.
"He has a magnificent house and a hacienda besides, and the best horses near Reina de Los Angeles, and he is sole heir to his wealthy father," Dona Catalina said.
"One whisper from his lips into the ear of his excellency, the governor, and a man is made—or unmade," added Don Carlos.
"He is handsome—"
"I grant you that!" exclaimed the Señorita Lolita, lifting her pretty head and glaring at them bravely. "That is what angers me! What a lover the man could be, if he would! Is it anything to make a girl proud to have it said that the man she married never looked at another woman, and so did not select her after dancing and talking and playing at love with others?"
"He preferred you to all others, else he would not have ridden out today," Don Carlos said..
"Certainly it must have fatigued him!" the girl said. "Why does he let himself be made the laughingstock of the country? He is handsome and rich and talented. He has health, and could lead all the other young men. Yet he has scarcely enough energy to dress himself, I doubt not."
"This is all beyond me," the Dona Catalina wailed. "When I was a girl, there was nothing like this. An honorable man comes seeking you as wife—"
"Were he less honorable and more of a man, I might look at him a second time," said the señorita.
"You must look at him more than a second time," put in Don Carlos, with some authority in his manner. "You cannot throw away such a fine chance. Think on it, my daughter. Be in a more amiable mood when Don Diego calls again."
Then he hurried to the patio on pretense that he wished to speak to a servant, but in reality to get away from the scene. Don Carlos had proved himself to be a courageous man in his youth, and now he was a wise man, also, and hence he knew better than to participate in an argument between women.
Soon the siesta hour was at hand, and the Señorita Lolita went into the patio and settled herself on a little bench near the fountain. Her father was dozing on the veranda, and her mother in her room, and the servants were scattered over the place, sleeping also. But Señorita Lolita could not sleep, for her mind was busy.
She knew her father's circumstances, of course, for it had been some time since he could hide them, and she wanted, naturally, to see him in excellent fortune again. She knew, too, that did she wed with Don Diego Vega, her father was made whole. For a Vega would not let the relatives of his wife be in any but the best of circumstances.
She called up before her a vision of Don Diego's handsome face, and wondered what it would be like if lighted with love and passion. 'Twere a pity the man was so lifeless, she told herself. But to wed a man who suggested sending a native servant to serenade her in his own place!
The splashing of the water in the fountain lulled her to sleep, and she curled up in one end of the bench, her cheek pillowed on one tiny hand, her black hair cascading to the ground.
And suddenly she was awakened by a touch on her arm, and sat up quickly, and then would have screamed except that a hand was crushed against her lips to prevent her.
Before her stood a man whose body was enveloped in a long cloak, and whose face was covered with a black mask so that she could see nothing of his features except his glittering eyes. She had heard Señor Zorro, the highwayman, described, and she guessed that this was he, and her heart almost ceased to beat, she was so afraid.
"Silence, and no harm comes to you, señorita," the man whispered hoarsely.
"You—you are—" she questioned on her breath.
He stepped back, removed his sombrero, and bowed low before her.
"You have guessed it, my charming señorita," he said. "I am known as Señor Zorro, the Curse of Capistrano."
"And—you are here—"
"I mean you no harm, no harm to any of this hacienda, señorita. I punish those who are unjust, and your father is not that. I admire him greatly. Rather would I punish those who do him evil than to touch him."
"I—I thank you, señor."
"I am weary, and the hacienda is an excellent place to rest," he said. "I knew it to be the siesta hour, also, and thought everyone would be asleep. It were a shame to awaken you, señorita, but I felt that I must speak. Your beauty would hinge a man's tongue in its middle so that both ends might be free to sing your praises."
Señorita Lolita had the grace to blush.
"I would that my beauty affected other men so," she said.
"And does it not? Is it that the Señorita Lolita lacks suitors? But that cannot be possible!"
"It is, nevertheless, señor. There are few bold enough to seek to ally themselves with the family of Pulido, since it is out of favor with the powers. There is one—suitor," she went on. "But he does not seem to put much life into his wooing."
"Ha! A laggard at love—-and in your presence? What ails the man? Is he ill?"
"He is so wealthy that I suppose he thinks he has but to request it and a maiden will agree to wed him."
"What an imbecile! 'Tis the wooing gives the spice to romance."
"But you, señor! Somebody may come and see you here! You may be captured!"
"And do you not wish to see a highwayman captured? Perhaps it would mend your father's fortune were he to capture me. The governor is much vexed, I understand, concerning my operations."
"You—you had best go," she said.
"There speaks mercy in your heart. You know that capture would mean my death. Yet must I risk it, and tarry a while."
He seated himself upon the bench, and Señorita Lolita moved away as far as she could, and then started to rise.
But Señor Zorro had been anticipating that. He grasped one of her hands and, before she guessed his intention, had bent forward, raised the bottom of his mask, and pressed his lips to its pink, moist palm.
"Señor!" she cried, and jerked her hand away.
"It were bold, yet a man must express his feelings," he said. "I have not offended beyond forgiveness, I hope."
"Go, señor, else I make an outcry!"
"And get me executed?"
"You are but a thief of the highroad!"
"Yet I love life as any other man."
"I shall call out, señor! There is a reward offered for your capture."
"Such pretty hands would not handle blood money."
"Ah, señorita, you are cruel. A sight of you sends the blood pounding through a man's veins. A man would fight a horde at the bidding of your sweet lips."
"A man would die in your defense, señorita. Such grace, such fresh beauty."
"For the last time, señor! I shall make an outcry—and your fate be on your own head!"
"Your hand again—and I go."
"It may not be!"
"Then here I sit until they come and take me. No doubt I shall not have to wait long. That big Sergeant Gonzales is on the trail, I understand, and may have discovered track of me. He will have soldiers with him—"
"Señor, for the love of the saints—"
She turned her back and gave it, and once more he pressed his lips to the palm. And then she felt herself being turned slowly, and her eyes looked deep into his. A thrill seemed to run through her. She realized that he retained her hand, and she pulled it away. And then she turned and ran quickly across the patio and into the house.
With her heart pounding at her ribs, she stood behind the curtains at a window and watched. Señor Zorro walked slowly to the fountain and stooped to drink. Then he put his sombrero on, looked once at the house, and stalked away. She heard the galloping hoofs of a horse die in the distance.
"A thief—yet a man!" she breathed. "If Don Diego had only half as much dash and courage!"