LATE THAT SULTRY AFTERNOON IN THE VERY EARLY 1880's, young Don Fernando Venegas rode slowly along the dusty highway which stretched from Mission San Gabriel to the pueblo with the long name which men already were contracting to Reina de los Angeles, and which now is known simply as Los Angeles.
Don Fernando rode in splendor. The slanting rays of the declining sun flashed from the silver ornaments on his bridle and saddle, and the rings on his ungloved hands. Diamonds and rubies scintillated in the brooch which fastened the silk scarf around his throat. Less precious jewels adorned the band of his sombrero. Others glittered in the hilt of the rapier he wore at his side—a thing of rare beauty and workmanship which also could be the means of swift and violent death.
Don Fernando's huge black horse pranced as though with pride because he carried such a splendid personage upon his back. A proper distance behind, and to the left and the lee, lest his body stench affront the delicate nostrils of his young master, Don Fernando's personal bodyguard and servant, Miguel, followed astride a riding mule, looking down with evident scorn upon others of his ilk, inordinately proud in the knowledge that a man takes rank from the one he serves.
In Reina de los Angeles it was the usual hour for the after-siesta promenade, when the cool breeze started drifting in over the hills from the distant sea. As he emerged from the highway and rode slowly toward a corner of the plaza, Don Fernando saw elderly men of birth and breeding as they strutted around somewhat pompously, plump señoras who teetered and smiled and bowed, dainty señoritas as they tripped along vivaciously with severe-looking dueñas ever watchful beside them, which bothered their fair charges not at all, no dueña in existence ever having been capable of dulling the lustre in a flashing eye. He saw other young caballeros parading on all sides of the plaza in their finest silks and satins, for there was to be a social affair of importance at the barracks that evening, and each young blade was attired in his resplendent best.
Native servants were scurrying around like so many sage rabbits in the brush, and with no more courage, careful to keep from under foot lest a whip laid forcibly across a naked back teach them the penalty for carelessness and laxity in manners. Perspiring, barefooted, ragged peons bore burdens like beasts, huge bundles upon their heads or backs.
Don Fernando Venegas straightened in his saddle, his head held high, glancing down upon this world from beneath drooping lids as, though the very best of it was unworthy his consideration. He was tall and slender, lithe and handsome, a young scion of a noble family with its roots in Old Spain and this one branch in the land of Alta California at the world's end. His elderly father had a great rancho of thousands of acres, received through a king's grant, in the vicinity of Mission San Gabriel. He had huge herds and flocks, vineyards and orchard land, citrus fruits and olives, and was a gentleman of station, wealth and substance.
As he rode on slowly, Don Fernando bowed to friends and acquaintances, lifted a hand in polite salute when he was hailed, and finally drew rein in front of the adobe tavern. Miguel dropped off the back of his riding mule quickly and hurried forward to hold the stirrup while his splendid master dismounted. On his knees, Miguel wiped the trail dust from his master's fine boots, using a square of heavy silk cloth for the purpose, then arose and bowed and led the black horse away to tether him to one of the horse blocks at the side of the building.
At the open door of the tavern, the fat innkeeper was bending almost double over his ample paunch, wheezing and panting as he did so, and holding wide his hands in a gesture to indicate that the tavern was no longer his property, should Don Fernando desire to claim it. But Don Fernando favored him with not so much as a single glance as he stooped slightly to pass through the doorway and into the cool, semidark interior.
The innkeeper clapped his hands smartly, and some of his native servants came running in answer, their bare feet pat-patting on the beaten earth floor, as Don Fernando sank on a bench beside one of the tables not far from the door.
"Fetch wine in my golden goblet! . . . The richest wine from my own private wineskin!" the innkeeper barked. "Fetch warm and perfumed water for the proper bathing of gentle hands . . . and fine linen with which to dry them! Fetch meats and fruits, honey and cakes . . . and make the greatest haste!"
Don Fernando lifted a restraining hand languidly. "Fetch the wine only," he counter-ordered in a low, well-modulated voice, and tossed down upon the table a piece of gold.
"Hasten with the wine, sluggards!" the innkeeper shouted, clapping his hands again. "The best wine for Don Fernando! Do not keep the caballero waiting! Hasten, base sons of snails!"
"Your constant vocal tumult annoys and distresses me," Don Fernando complained to the innkeeper.
"I ask a thousand pardons of you, Don Fernando." The innkeeper bowed low and exhaled abundantly again. "I shall contrive to speak in whispers hereafter. I am only loud with joy because you honor my poor tavern with your presence. Ah, the wine! In my own golden goblet, Don Fernando! It is rare wine—"
Don Fernando sipped cautiously. "Juice-sweetened water in a cup of brass," he gave verdict. He tossed down two more gold pieces. "Dispose of it," he ordered, "and purchase a better one, that I may have something fitting from which to drink if I ever enter your filthy hovel again."
"Everything shall be done as you request, Don Fernando," the innkeeper replied, putting the gold coins quickly into a pocket of his apron.
"I have come here, rogue, to have certain speech with you." Don Fernando informed him, speaking softly. "Private speech!"
"Si, Don Fernando!" The innkeeper waddled away for a few feet and clapped his hands. Some half score men scattered around the room gave him their immediate attention. "Out!" he screeched at them. "The tavern is especially reserved for the moment. Out at once, señors! Don Fernando Venegas desires to have private speech with me."
They arose and made their exit immediately, though some did it with poor grace, and Don Fernando, brushing his nostrils with his handkerchief as if to drown with perfume a stench, appeared otherwise not aware of their passing. The innkeeper followed them to the door, closed it upon them and scurried back to the table, motioning for the servants in the room to retire.
"Don Fernando, we are now alone," he whispered, then. "I am prepared to listen to your demands and execute any order you please to give me. It is an honor to serve—"
"I am not even here, señor," Don Fernando interrupted, his eyes twinkling. "Now attend me closely! Try hard to understand my words and motives. It certainly beneath a Venegas to listen to idle gossip—"
"Ha! Such a thing is unthinkable, Don Fernando! Every man who possesses the slightest sense is aware of that."
"Yet there may be times," Don Fernando continued, "when a man cannot learn the truth of a thing unless words are wafted into his ears."
"That is a wise saying, Don Fernando. Nobody with sense can dispute a statement of that nature."
"Though he may not with propriety pry into the personal affairs of others, he certainly cannot avoid it if the affairs of others happen to be the subject of talk near him, and so enter unasked and unbidden into his intelligence."
"Ha! There we have it! There never was a truer word spoken, Don Fernando!" the innkeeper declared. "How I wish I had a skill with words, so I could explain things as expertly as do you."
"Understand me, fellow—I am not even here with you," Don Fernando reminded him. "But if you were to discuss something, it is possible that the brisk evening breeze would carry your speech to my ears."
"The evening breeze is quite strong today I notice, Don Fernando. I am wondering what topic of discussion should happen to enter this poor thing of mine I call a mind."
"Suppose you had an urge to consider—merely to yourself, of course—affairs concerning Don Carlos Moreno, lately come to Reina de los Angeles from Santa Barbara and reported to be traveling to San Diego de Alcala to make himself a new home there."
"Ha! Don Carlos Moreno! There is a hidalgo of estimable wealth and social station. Having lately lost his wife, he has disposed of his hacienda and goes to join old friend, Don Juan Quinonez, also bereaved. He is for the present moment the honored guest of Capitán Felipe Sebastiano, comandante and representative in Reina de los Angeles of His Excellency, the Governor of Alta California. There is to be a grand affair of fashion at the barracks this evening in his honor. I could speak of this Don Carlos Moreno—si!"
"Suppose that you make some slight speech also —strictly to yourself, understand—of Don Carlos Moreno's daughter, the señorita Manuela, saying whether she is as fair as some men claim—"
It flashed into the mind of the innkeeper that Don Fernando was not overly much concerned about Don Carlos Moreno. But plainly, he desired to hear the daughter's praises voiced by the lips of another. The innkeeper rolled his eyes and kissed the tips of his fingers and wafted the kiss toward the ceiling.
"Ah, the dainty señorita Manuela!" he exclaimed. "Such rare beauty and grace! Such splendid vivacity! The twinkling stars are in her eyes and the bright sunshine in her smile. Even my poor old heart which has been pounding at my ribs for so many years is but a bit of common earth for her dainty feet to tread upon."
"Were I present here instead of being elsewhere," Don Fernando remarked, "I should probably ask whether that flowery speech of yours was truth or the gross exaggeration of an unbalanced mind."
"I speak the truth! She is the fairest, the sweetest and most modest . . . I swear it by the saints!"
"That seems to be sufficient," Don Fernando decided. "Do others hold a like opinion of her?"
"Ha! How the young caballeros have been strutting around since she came to Reina de los Angeles with her father!" the innkeeper exulted. "How loudly they talk and boast and laugh and try to attract her attention to themselves!"
"No doubt," Don Fernando observed.
"And how the little señorita smiles at their clownish antics, undoubtedly knowing that some man she considers to be of real worth will be coming past some day."
"Were I really present here and interested at all in this gossip, I might question whether she seems to prefer any one of them to the others," Don Fernando hinted.
"I have only rumor and hearsay upon which to base any statement I may make," the innkeeper explained, "but it is being whispered about that one woos her with such fire that he really makes himself ridiculous and displeasing."
Don Fernando glanced up at him with evident interest. "His name?" he asked.
"I hesitate to voice it . . . Bartolo Rios."
"Ha!" Don Fernando Venegas turned almost purple in the face from his sudden wrath, and quickly brushed his scented handkerchief across his nostrils. "There is a horrid odor in the air, señor, since you spoke that name," he declared.
"I realize that also, Don Fernando. I ask your humble pardon."
"Bartolo Rios! Some ignorant fools even give him a `Don' to ride in front of his name. Bartolo Rios and his brother, Luis, sons of a rogue of a father who has amassed some wealth through his unscrupulous dealings! The Rios', swindlers of peons and natives, daring to ape the manners of their betters!"
The innkeeper knew how those of good blood looked upon the Rios—as upon rich upstarts who thought gold could balance birth and breeding. He knew, also, how affairs were between Don Fernando Venegas and the Rio brothers personally, how Don Fernando, by common report, itched at times to out blade and at them, yet would deem it lowering himself to do such a thing.
"That a creature like this Bartolo Rios breathe the same air as the dainty señorita—" he began.
But Don Fernando interrupted him with a gesture.
"No doubt, the señorita Manuela Moreno is a charm and a delight, as you have explained to me," he said. "It is in my mind to make her acquaintance as speedily as possible, and if the sight of her pleases me to devote considerable time to her, my principal object in this being to keep continually in Bartolo Rios' path if he persists in approaching and annoying her. It were no less than a duty—"
Don Fernando ceased speaking abruptly and arched his brows in a display of annoyance. Through the open window of the tavern had come a series of howls, shrill cries of pain, the unmistakable sound of a whip being laid forcibly across a human back. Loud laughter could be heard also, and a man speaking in angry, stentorian tones:
"I'll cut your stinking hide into thin strips, peon dog!"
Don Fernando gestured a command, and the innkeeper hurried to the window and peered out into the plaza. "Don Fernando!" he cried, excitement sharpening his voice. "It is that same Bartolo Rios of whom I was just speaking. He is beating Miguel, your peon body servant, for some fault."
"He is—? What did you say, señor? He is beating Miguel? Ha!"
Don Fernando got up from the bench quickly and straightened his lithe body. He adjusted his sash, felt of the hilt of his rapier, tugged at his sombrero, and brushed from one of his ruffled sleeves an imaginary speck of dust. The innkeeper, his eyes bulging, waddled ahead and pulled the door open.
Don Fernando went forth slowly into the orange and scarlet sunset. He saw that Miguel was upon his knees, trying to shield his head with his arms, and Bartolo Rios was standing over him, flaying with a whip he had taken from some man standing nearby. Some of the bystanders were laughing at Miguel's plight, others scowling at Bartolo Rios for this exhibition of wanton cruelty.
There was a quick hush among the spectators when Don Fernando appeared. Bartolo Rios stepped back and dropped the whip to his side, his face aflame and his black eyes gleaming malevolently. Miguel's howls ceased when he saw Don Fernando approaching, but he remained in his kneeling position with his arms wrapped around his head, and whimpered.
Don Fernando strode forward quickly, handkerchief held to nostrils, and looked down at the wretched Miguel. "What is this tumult?" he demanded, sternly. "You screech like a madman."
"Master, I swear by all the saints that it was no fault of mine!"
"Your dog of a peon splattered dust upon my boots as I walked past him," Bartolo Rios accused, "and I punished him for it. My own personal servants are better trained."
Don Fernando seemed not to hear what had been said. He spoke to Miguel again.
"You know how I detest all tumult and disorder. Miguel, why are you peons always brawling?"
"Brawling?" Bartolo Rios roared angrily, his swarthy face suddenly aflame again. "I, Bartolo Rios, brawl with a common peon? I but whipped a dog—"
"Miguel, it is in my mind that you should be punished for this in some manner," Don Fernando continued, as though Bartolo Rios had not spoken. "Your offense is a serious one. You have startled the gentle ladies with your wild howls. It is well known to many that you are my body servant. Do you seek to belittle me in the eyes of others?"
"Master, I swear—!"
"Silence, rogue!" Don Fernando ordered. "Your act is the cause of much embarrassment to me. If you felt some wild, strange urge to kick dust upon the polished boots of a man.as he passed you, why did you not select one of gentle blood who would be above noticing your fault, or, noticing it, would have admonished you gently? Some man, let us say, I could with full propriety have rebuked as an equal and demanded satisfaction as from such; did I care to resent his beating of you?"
At the conclusion of Don Fernando's somewhat long speech, which he had delivered in a voice loud enough for all around to hear, Bartolo Rios stepped closer quickly.
"Did I hear and understand you correctly, Don Fernando Venegas?" he demanded.
"Your pardon, señor, but not knowing you well I am unaware whether you can hear at all."
"I resent your words and manner intensely, Don Fernando! Why am I not your equal in all things? My father undoubtedly has as much wealth as your own—"
"Wealth?" Don Fernando questioned in interruption, his brows arching again. "Wealth is a necessity of life, as is the periodical purging of the human system with certain drugs, but neither is discussed much in polite society. Besides, some wealth is gathered through such means as a gentleman may use with propriety, and other wealth by swindling ignorant natives—"
Don Fernando ceased speaking, smiled faintly, and made a rather vague gesture which might have meant almost anything.
"You dare speak so to me?" Bartolo Rios shouted.
"Was I speaking to you, señor?" Don Fernando asked, and each separate syllable dripped insult.
"Now, by the saints—!" Bartolo Rios stepped backward, and started to draw his blade from its scabbard. Brushing his nostrils lightly again with his scented handkerchief, Don Fernando remained a picture of calm and eyed the other as one might some curious animal.
The crowd had meanwhile been joined by others enjoying the promenade before the evening meal, and among them was Capitán Felipe Sebastiano, comandante in Reina de los Angeles and trusted representative of His Excellency, the Governor. Being something of a politician, Capitán Sebastiano knew how to take advantage of moments. The Rios family had wealth, he knew well, but the Venegas family had wealth and social station and great influence also. And now Capitán Sebastiano sought to put an immediate stop to this affair, having the feeling that Don Fernando really had no wish for combat.
"I beg of you, señors, to curb your anger!" Capitán Sebastiano shouted at them, glancing significantly at Bartolo Rios' half-drawn blade. "Do not forget the new order of His Excellency forbidding duelling. The punishment for transgression is severe. It can extend even to imprisonment and confiscation of estate. Let us have peace here, señors."
Don Fernando said nothing and made no move. Bartolo Rios fell back a step, and his blade rang as he slapped it back violently into its scabbard.
"His Excellency's order is most convenient for some," Rios said. He glared at Don Fernando and turned away abruptly. Capitán Sebastiano gestured for the crowd to disperse. Don Fernando glanced around— and his eyes met, for the very first time, those of señorita Manuela Moreno.
Clinging to her father's arm, she had stopped at the fringe of the crowd. Don Fernando realized that she must have been there for some time, must have seen and heard.
Never before had he seen a face which struck so deeply into his heart's consciousness at first sight. A vision of loveliness was there before him.
Her dark eyes were sparkling as she regarded him. Her white teeth flashed in a fleeting smile that caused a dimple to dance in one cheek. Her lips moved slightly, and on a gust of the breeze her words carried to Don Fernando's ears.
"Caballero!" she said. "A real one!"
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