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Warning: the second chapter contains a rather elaborated "implied sex"-scene!
ND THERE he went again. Up on the counter, through the high window and gone. A whickering was heard outside, followed by the sound of flying hooves disappearing in the distance.
Victoria let out a sigh and lowered herself down on the floor in the corner of her kitchen. Was this all she was ever to expect? A few fleeting moments of romance, a passionate kiss and then see him running off again? When would his quest for justice finally end?! And what if it never would? She so much longed for a family of her own: a husband, children... Not just any husband, but Zorro as her husband and father of her children. And then without his mask of course. If only she could make him understand that she was getting tired of waiting! Nearly seven years it had been, and still the end of tyranny and oppression was nowhere in sight. Why - if he couldnīt quit being Zorro yet - why couldnīt they get married and live their lives together anyway?! Why would he have to give up Zorro for that first? He could still go out as Zorro even when he was married, couldnīt he? She wouldnīt be the one to stop him! She knew too well how necessary it was to keep check on the alcalde, and to assist the garrison to catch the occasional outlaws and robbers. So why couldnīt they live the rest of his life together, as man and wife? His work as Zorro was like his job. So what! What difference does it make if a husband goes out to work on a ranch, or be a blacksmith or a store-keeper, or to fight for justice? It wouldnīt put her in any more danger than she was in now; even now the alcalde arrested her every now and then for ībeing in league with the known outlaw Zorroī.
And surely, if only she knew who he was, they could start pretending to fall in love with each other in normal life, with the happy outcome of marriage without Zorro being publicly unmasked. It would make things so much easier. Why couldnīt he see that? Why was he always running away? She was getting tired of this sheer endless waiting. If only she knew it would end some day. Some day soon. But she felt she was growing old. In a few years she would turn thirty. The bloom of her life was nearly over, and all she ever did was wait! Wait, wait, wait! Wait till her hair would turn grey and Zorro would be a hobbling old codger!
She chuckled involuntarily at the thought of an aged Zorro, with a white mustache and stiff with rheumatics, carefully kneeling down and asking her with a tiny, quavery voice if she would marry him now. And she, an old beguine with white hair in a bun, a thousand wrinkles and hard of hearing, putting her hand behind her ear and demanding in a loud voice: "What did you say?"
No! That was not to happen! Better still: she was not going to let that happen! She was in the bloom of her life and she wanted the man she loved at her side! She wanted to love and to hold him, whenever sheīd want to! She wanted to experience his passion without holding back; she wanted a life with him! A life, a family, children...!
She stiffened as an itchy idea struck her mind, and she blushed deeply with the recklessness of it. It was scandalous, shameless, stupid maybe... but she was sure that indeed it would work!
Carefully she tinkered around the idea. It was completely immoral, but what if she could make Zorro marry her? After all, there were certain ways... He was gentleman enough to take his responsibility in that case, if only to avoid her being despised by the whole town. And after all: what harm was there? She loved him, he loved her, they were already secretly engaged, and they both longed passionately for the day they could be united. All it could do was making both his and her dearest wish come true, so... why not? Sheīd just have to give him a little push, otherwise that vision of the rheumatic Zorro and the hardhearing beguine Victoria would definitely come true.
Deeply in thought she got up and started finishing her last chores in the tavern. And still deeply in thought she climbed the stairs to her room, got ready for the night and got into bed. Her bed... Would she really dare to get him...? It was vile, it was plain unscrupulous... but it was for a good cause. In the end theyīd both get exactly what they wanted, so... She took a deep breath, and slowly breathed out again. Would she...? Was she really ready for this? Oh, nonsense... All her friends from school had gotten married by now, most of them already had several children. So why shouldnīt she be ready...
Another deep breath. "Yes," she said quietly to herself. "Yes. I am going to do it." She sounded very determined all of a sudden. "Iīm going to do it. He loves me and I love him. We deserve to be happy together now; weīve been waiting far too long!"
She turned over to her side and shuddered slightly. She couldnīt help it: it was a scary thought, no matter how she longed for him. And exactly how this was to be accomplished was a big mystery. All her mother had ever said about the matter was that she should not go to bed with a man, for if she did, she would get children for sure. Now that she was all grown up, she suspected that there was a little more to it than just lying in bed side by side with a man. Still, she wasnīt quite sure of what that little more implied. It had probably something to do with the way Zorro kissed her. Whenever he pulled away for propriety-reasons - yes, it was always he who pulled away out of propriety, not she! - she always felt that they were breaking off something bigger than just a kiss. What could such kisses lead to? Going to bed with a man? And then what? She wondered if he knew... But what if he had no idea either, and they would just lie next to each other, not able to determine what action should be taken?
But now that she had made up her mind, she would carry through with her plan. As long as sheīd keep the happy outcome in mind, she could very well push away uncomfortable thoughts about the immorality of it all. Padre Benitez would never approve, but surely he would have to admit that this would be no ordinary shotgun-wedding. This was not going to be the result of thoughtlessness between two people who scarcely cared for each other; this was the only way to get together two people who loved each other dearly, but who had been cruelly separated for many years!
And with that in mind, she closed her eyes, hoping for dreams of her masked lover as her husband. And father of her children.
ORE THAN A week passed in which she did not have the slightest chance of executing her plan. One night she had been invited to the De la Vegaīs, and for the rest Zorro was quite occupied with a group of bandits terrorizing the faraway farms and a new scheme of the alcalde to capture him. Of course, he outsmarted both the alcalde and the bandits - how could it be otherwise - but all that was left for her were a few loving phrases and a tender but quick handkiss in public.
"And that is to be my life?" she muttered rebelliously. "No! It shall not be! The first time he comes to see me again after closing-time...!"
But that very night, when she entered her bedroom with a flickering candle, she found the familiar Z of roses on her pillow. Her breath caught. Was this it!? Was he here? Or... had he been here...!
She closed the door behind her and put down the candle on the nightstand. And just as she reached out to touch the beautiful flowers, there was the sound of the curtain being thrusted aside and there, next to the window, was Zorro. Her Zorro.
A shock went down her spine. "Zorro!" This was it, this was perfect...!
He stepped around the bed to take her hand and said passionately: "I couldnīt bear to stay away from you a moment longer." He kissed her hand, and Victoria felt like she was in seventh heaven. Here he was, within a meterīs distance. Sheīd have to be cunning now! Very cunning, like a female fox! Cunning and charming! Sheīd have to make him mad with desire, so mad that heīd forget all propriety and just wanted to have her!
Carefully she brought his gloved hand to her cheek. She rubbed it against her skin, like a cat. "Iīm so glad you came," she whispered sottovoce. "I missed you. I missed you so much. I long for you, every day, every night... Your kisses, your arms around me, your mere scent..."
Comforting he took her in his arms. "I know, Victoria. Itīs hard for me, too. I want nothing more than to hold you forever and ever..."
Victoria bit her tongue. This was not the time to be whining about that. She had a different strategy this time, remember? "Well, whatīs keeping you?" she asked softly.
She felt him smile and kiss her hair, but he didnīt answer. So she snuggled up in his arms and hoped her instincts would tell her how to act. After all, what experience did she have in these kind of things? She tried to envision what alcalde De Soto had done when he thought he had drunk dr. Wayneīs potion for desire. But it was hard to concentrate on someone as repulsive as the alcalde when breathing in the fragrance of the man of her dreams. And who required her attention anyway: "Whatīs bothering you, seņorita? You seem worried," he asked gently.
She looked up. Startled. "N... nothing. Iīm just... I love you..."
A broad smile brightened his face. "I love you, too." He bent down for a warm, soft kiss. And as the touch of his lips grew more ardent, all of a sudden Victoria felt she knew how to make her plan happen. They had always been rather cautious in their kisses. They were delightful, but prudent. Controlled. Proper - aware as they were of their impropriety anyway. And Zorro, of course, was one of those īevery inch a gentlemanī, who would never take advantage of a lady in any way. So he would always pull back before their kisses got critical, and - though reluctant - she would give in and quit the kiss, too. For propriety-reasons only, for they both realized that there was more to it; something amazing they yearned to explore. But they both felt things could easily get out of hand, and go too far if they didnīt pull back in time. Too far. How far? Until they would end up in bed making a baby?
Well, if that was it, all she had to do this time was to resist when heīd try to back out. To continue when he wanted to quit. Overcoming that wall of propriety and pushing away all ideas of prudence and caution that she had been taught since childhood. And not give him the chance to be prudent either!
So with an inward smile she not only returned his kiss, but deepened it as well. It was exciting, and to her surprise Zorro had but a moment of hesitation before pulling her closer and responding her kiss in the same manner. It felt like heaven! Her heart started to beat faster, her blood rushed through her veins, her skin felt all tingly and suddenly, of its own accord, her hand started to slide into the wide collar of his black shirt. Her fingers roamed over his musculous chest. Zorro moaned and tried to pull back, but somewhere in the back of her brain she knew she had him where she wanted him: he was losing control and tried to regain it, but this time she would not let him! With her other hand she pulled him even closer, so that she could feel his heart beat at an exciting pace. Again he moaned; it sounded vaguely like her name, and he tried desperately to untangle himself from her embrace. But her lips held him captured better than the alcalde ever could in his jail. And despite himself, Zorro couldnīt help but respond to her desire. And Victoria, she wanted to feel him, to experience him, love him! So while deepening their kiss even further, she managed to unbutton his shirt, undo his belt so his sword fell on the floor with a thud (making him jump, but her kiss kept him well under control) and unty his sash. By then, Zorro had involuntarily started tugging at her shirt, too, but that sensation brought him back to his senses enough to roughly push her back and pant hoarsely: "Victoria, what are you doing?!"
Not that he got that far. Victoria had grabbed him again before he had even managed to utter two words. She knew she was winning, and she was not going to give up.
"I want you," she hissed, and covered his mouth, his jaw, his mask, his bare chest with passionate kisses. It wasnīt difficult. She didnīt even have to push herself to it; actually she found it was all quite natural.
"But... Victoria..." Zorro protested weakly. But her seduction was too overpowering. He just couldnīt help it: he had to kiss her, too. He knew he had to resist, he knew he had to bring himself to a halt and pull away. But somehow he could not. Not anymore. Her face, her hair, her bare shoulders and down towards... It was too much. He wanted her. He groaned. Deep. His racing mind told his hands to push her away from him, to cool off, to create distance, to run away from her before it was too late. Before theyīd jump to things they would regret later on. He tried to, with all his might. He tried to push her away. But he found he couldnīt. His hands made a slight effort to push her off him. But immediately they pulled her back in his arms. He couldnīt think straight anymore. What was happening to him?!
Victoria didnīt even try to think anymore. She let her body act on its instincts, and she just marvelled at the way it felt. Her knees had started to give way under her, and all that kept her upright now was the fact that she clung onto Zorro. It was almost as if she was melting into him, and for an instant she wondered if this was the supreme moment, even if they were not even in bed yet.
But at that very moment she noticed something unexpected. Something hard from under Zorroīs clothes started to press up against her stomach. Was this how babies were being made: melting into each other and then...? She felt how Zorro ferociously tried to back out again. But since her legs seemed totally incapable of supporting her, she let herself fall backwards onto her bed and pulled him with her with all the force she could muster, so that he landed on top of her. Oof, he was heavy! But now that she had gotten him in her bed...
She pulled him tight into her, and wrapped her legs around his as well, as to avoid any possibility of his escape. Zorro struggled in her arms, but she refused to let go of him. "Victoria..." she heard him pant in despair, but she simply kissed him again to shut him up. Well, if this was how to make children, sheīd hopefully...
Suddenly she stifled a cry. That hard thing she had felt before now nuzzled her underlife, and tried to get in there somehow! For a long moment she felt nothing but sheer panic. No matter how vague her motherīs warnings had been, she just knew this was what she had meant. Alarm! Danger! She should run!
But as soon as the hard thing started to find its way in, she realized that this must be it. She panted heavily and held on to Zorro for dear life as his īthingī entered her body deeper and deeper. It hurt, oh, how it hurt, but it felt amazing, wonderful, ecstatic, marvellous, all at once, too. This was what passion was all about! What they had been missing out on for so many years! To be united, two people becoming one... And as a passionate rhythm took over their entangled bodies, all thoughts simply vanished from their minds as they finally made love for the very first time after seven years of waiting.
It was a considerable time later before that passionate rhythm died down and they both got back to their senses. Still panting heavily, Zorro rolled on his side next to her. They were both still half-dressed, but there was no denying of what they had done.
Victoria looked back at him and smiled cautiously. "That was wonderful," she whispered.
Zorro nodded pensively; then shook his head. The mask rustled. "No. It felt wonderful indeed, but we shouldnīt have, Victoria." There was a hint of sadness, of regret in his voice. "You know as well as I do that this was a horrible mistake. It wasnīt time yet for... such things. Iīm sorry."
Victoria felt lazy and thoroughly excited at the same time, and slowly she responded: "If Iīd have to wait till it was your time, Iīd have to wait till youīre old and grey."
He shook his head. "Now youīre being ridiculous."
"I am not!" she stated firmly. "But here I am, in the bloom of my life, and life itself is just passing me by! Everyone gets married and has children, and all I ever do is wait! I just wanted to experience what it is like to be loved. Before I grow old!"
He eyed her suspiciously. "You mean you did this on purpose? Pushing through every time I tried to back out?"
"Yes, I did," she admitted proudly.
Zorro sighed. "Donīt I have any say in such matters?"
She shook her head. "Not this time. Then Iīd still have to content myself with a kiss and some roses."
Her mentioning the roses made him look up and smile. The roses he had laid out on her pillow earlier that night were now entangled in her black curls. She looked lovely. But again he shook his head. "And what if..."
Victoria quickly put her hand over his mouth. "No īwhat ifsī tonight, if you please," she said. "All we did was being selfish for a change. Instead of thinking of the good of the pueblo, we did something we wanted. For the very first time in seven years. Is that too much to ask?"
Zorro sighed again. "No, it isnīt. Still, Iīd wish you had picked some other activity we wanted to do in case we felt like being selfish for a change."
She smiled enigmatically. "I donīt. I loved it. And I will treasure this forever - at least until the day we get married. It was wonderful."
He nodded with a sigh and started to get up. "It was. But still..." He pulled up his pants, started buttoning up his black shirt and picked up the rest of his outfit from the floor. From the bed she watched him getting dressed. The last garment he had to put back on was his black hat. But first he looked at her, and with a hesitant smile he whispered: "You look lovelier than ever, seņorita. But please, donīt do this again till the day we are married."
With a last little kiss on her forehead he put on the hat, and disappeared out of the window.
UICKLY, ZORRO lowered himself down in the shadows. His mind was in turmoil, but it was necessary to keep a clear head. He wouldnīt want to run into the alcalde. And definitely not now. Carefully he crept from shadow to shadow, to the back of the houses lining the plaza. He found Toronado where he had left him, climbed onto his back and raced home.
"Madre de Dios, what have I done?!" he moaned over and over again. Victoria was right in one thing: it sure had felt wonderful to make his seven-year-old dream - and obviously not only his - finally come true. But not like this! Devoid of all propriety, ruining her reputation... He had always thought theyīd get married first before jumping to the exploration of making love. And now...! How could he forget himself like that!? For a moment he tried to blame the whole thing on Victoria; hadnīt she admitted openly that she had seduced him to this on purpose? But that wouldnīt do. Making love needs two people; he was just as guilty as she was. "I should have pulled away, I should have run away, I should have slapped her in the face to bring her to her senses, I should have..." He should have lots of things. But he knew very well that he hadnīt. There was only one thing he had done that counted: he had shamelessly made love to Victoria, and there was nothing he could change about it...
For once he was glad to find upon entering the secret cave that Felipe had grown tired of waiting and had gone off to bed. So he looked after Toronado himself, and then changed to his ordinary caballero clothes. His watch told him it was past three in the morning. But he felt far too agitated to go to bed, and so he passed the rest of the night pacing around the cave and occasionally watching his experiments. And all that with one single thought torturing him: "What have I done!?"
Victoria lay back on her bed. She felt wonderful. "This is what a flower must feel like when opening up to the first rays of sunshine in the spring," she thought.
Then she turned her attention to her belly. Would her plan have worked? She was pretty sure Zorro and she had done what her mother so doomingly had called īgo to bed with a manī. So was she carrying Zorroīs child now? Her belly still seemed disappointingly flat, and she watched it intently as if she expected it to blow up to huge proportions any second. But nothing happened, and she heaved a deep sigh. Oh well, perhaps it was still too early to tell. As far as she had seen from other women in the pueblo, a pregnancy could easily stretch over four, five months or even longer. She knew so little about these things... Sheīd just have to wait and see what would happen. That is: if her motherīs warnings were true, and anything was to happen...
HE WEEKS passed by and nothing much seemed to happen. Zorro did his work, still seeking her out in the plaza and courting her in public, but their private little encounters late at night in the tavern seemed to be history. Every now and then Victoria still found roses on her pillow in the form of a Z, but there was no Zorro to kiss and to hold her. And sometimes she wondered if she might have scared him off or something that night.
That night... And what result had come out of it? Nothing! Well... at least she thought it was nothing. She had felt a bit uneasy in the stomach a couple of mornings, and lately she felt she could sleep all day. But was that any indication of her being with child? She doubted it; those minor symptoms could easily be the result of her very own imagination, or even be caused by something as prozaic as a mild case of the flu. And besides, there was not the slightest sign of her belly starting to swell up, so...
The problem was that she couldnīt very well go and ask anyone. Not dr. Hernandez, not any woman with experience in childbirth, not anyone. She had no sisters, and her mother had been dead for over ten years. And if indeed she was not expecting, sheīd rather keep that wonderful lovenight she had had with Zorro a secret, and so not unnecessarily ruining her reputation any further. Once or twice, in the darkest hours of her lonely nights, she had seriously considered confiding in Don Diego. He was such a dear friend; he would never betray such confidence, she was sure of that. He would be shocked, but... And he was so well educated, and even had some knowledge of medicine. Perhaps he knew? Or could find out for her how a woman could know whether she was in the family way or not? But even though this not-knowing was positively unnerving, by the time the sun rose over the mountains in the east she had always decided against asking him just yet. If it wasnīt true, sheīd still rather keep Diegoīs general high opinion of her.
And Diego? He was pacing around the secret cave, waiting for some experiments to develop, and in the meantime still torturing himself with the same endless questions. What have I done? Why did she...? What on earth made her do that? īBeing selfish for once after seven years,ī she had said. He felt betrayed. And somehow he felt he had betrayed her as well. Ruined her reputation. True, she had made him to, seduced him, till he had been completely out of control, without a will, totally in her power, but still... he should have been the wiser. Stronger. More persistent in resisting her. He shouldnīt have let her... Of course, his desire for her was as strong as hers, but they had always managed to control it. No matter how much he longed for her, he had always managed to keep control, if only by fleeing from her as he felt his feelings running off with him. But this time she had very consciously added fuel to the fire, and he hadnīt been able to resist. It was horrifying to face the truth, but there it was: he, Diego de la Vega, had dishonoured the woman of his dreams, as well as disgraced his own family.
He had hardly shown his face in town after that night. As Diego that is; Zorro had had quite a few occasions to ride into town. But both Zorro and Diego feared the encounter with Victoria. As Zorro he had courted her and greeted her in public as usual, in order not to arise suspicion. But he had felt strangely restrained in doing so, and no matter how he yearned for her, he had not ventured to resume his nightly visits. Perhaps Victoria thought she had scared him off. He couldnīt tell, and he couldnīt ask her. For the fact was that he was dreading the time theyīd next meet in private, either as Zorro or as Diego...
And so he continued his pacing around the cave, while in the back of his mind the question occurred how long it would take before the erosion would show on the floor.
HE SUN WAS grilling the plaza. It was nearly midsummer, and warmer than ever. Fortunately, inside the white Tavern Victoria the temperature was still pleasantly cool. So it was only logical that the people gathered there instead of in the shimmering heat of the plaza. Victoria and her two assistants, Maria and Pilar, had their hands full in serving everybody.
"Seņorita, can we have some more wine, please?"
"Two orange juice, please."
"Do you have anything left over from lunch? Iīm starving!"
"Seņorita, a cup of tea, please!"
"A whole pitcher of water."
"Three coffee, please, seņorita!"
Victoria swallowed with difficulty as she rushed back to the kitchen to prepare everything that was being ordered. What was wrong with her!? What was wrong with the coffee?! Every time she saw or smelled coffee... Another swallow: even when she just heard the word, or only thought about it... Again she had to swallow down an instant urge to throw up. What was the matter with her!? It wasnīt like there was something wrong with the coffee - yet another cramp in her stomach - or she would have heard about it by now.
She pushed a strand of hair back. She was just being ridiculous. This was nonsense; there was no reason why the mere thought of coffee should... She turned abruptly and ran for the outside toilet. Just in time...
When she returned, pale and still a bit shaky, she found Maria looking at her questioningly. But she merely shook her head and got back to work. With a very uneasy feeling, nearly holding her breath when she passed out the coffee to the three caballeros, but she managed.
At that moment, seņora Perez came bursting in through the door. The gloating excitement radiated from her face, and she headed straight for the ladiesī corner. And Victoria couldnīt help overhearing her latest piece of gossip as she was clearing off the table next to them: "Have you heard the news!? Young Maria de la Cruz is forced to marry Pablo Gonzalez, a mere vaquero! Don Pedro is outrageous, can you imagine? Theyīll be married within a few weeks! Pablo Gonzalez had gotten her in the family way, but she managed to keep it a secret for months! Sick as a dog she is in the mornings, but she kept a straight face and never mentioned a thing! Can you believe it?"
Victoria sighed. Poor Maria. She was but fifteen, sixteen years old, and then being with child and forced to marry... And here was she, Victoria Escalante, twenty-seven years old and longing to marry her love and have children...
"How did they find out then?" she heard Doņa Paula ask.
"Coffee!" seņora Perez stated with a self-complacent grin, and Victoria winced. She stood stockstill, listening to seņora Perezīs tale. "Coffee became her downfall. We all know how fond Don Pedro and Doņa Luisa are of coffee, donīt we?"
Victoria swallowed down another attack of nausea, and she wondered if it was just caused by the mentioning of the C-word, or partly by this piece of information on how to discover a pregnancy. It couldnīt be... Could it?
"Well," seņora Perez continued, "apparently Maria excused herself every time coffee was being served after dinner. In the end, Doņa Luisa became suspicious about her always disappearing as soon as coffee was served, and she quietly followed her. And it appeared that Maria simply ran for the bathroom as soon as she was out of the dining-room, to throw up. At first she denied everything of course, but in the end she confessed about the morningsickness and everything. Can you imagine: she had already missed out on her period three times! The De la Cruz are going to be grandparents before the year is over! How shocking!"
Victoria stood frozen to the spot. She, too, had not had her period since... Yes, she had missed out on two already; the third was supposed to be due next week. It couldnīt be... It couldnīt be...! Or could it...?!
She came to with a start when seņora Perez turned to her and asked: "Seņorita Escalante, can you bring me cup of coffee, please?"
She stood there like a pilar of salt as a new wave of nausea washed over her. She had to swallow two, three times to fight it down before she could mumble: "I... Iīm sorry... I donīt feel very well..."
Instantly she fled towards the safety of the kitchen, leaving her tray and the glasses on the table she had been cleaning. The ladies turned their head and watched her disappear through the curtain.
"My, my," Doņa Inez said slowly as she refound her speech, "she sure is in a hurry."
Doņa Paula nodded and added pensively: "She didnīt look very well indeed. Almost green in the face. Do you think sheīs coming down with some illness?"
"A very interesting shade of green, too," seņora Perez reflected cunningly. "And her behaviour... thatīs not like the seņorita, is it? What do you think upset her so much in our conversation? For Iīm quite sure she overheard us talking. I had no idea she cared so much for young Maria..."
Doņa Paula started to say: "Well, seņorita Escalante has a neck for caring for everybody", but Doņa Inez sharply drew in her breath: "Do you mean...?"
A meaningful silence followed as the ladies looked at each other and then intently watched the curtain where Victoria had disappeared from the room.
"I knew something was different," seņora Perez said in an excited gloomy whisper. "Her face is all puffy, and she has been unusually touchy lately. Havenīt you noticed? Iīm pretty sure it was our talking about coffee that made her feel so indisposed. Did you notice she had to swallow several times before she could utter a word?"
"Yes, but who?" Doņa Inez wondered in a hoarse whisper. "We all know that Victoria Escalante is violently in love with Zorro, so..."
"So it has to be Zorro!" seņora Perez completed. "Zorro has dishonoured a respectable young lady!"
Doņa Paula sighed. "Zorro! Who would have thought... I always believed he was the picture of a true gentleman..." Her voice trailed away in shattered dreams.
"Well, he may be a friend of the people, but he is an outlaw," Doņa Inez pointed out.
"Yes, but Zorro...!" Doņa Paula could scarce believe it. "I mean: when do they ever get the chance to...? With so many people around in the plaza, and the alcalde and the lancers always at his back...?"
"And who says he doesnīt sneak into the tavern every night to share the bed with the seņorita?"
The ladies stared at each other in horror, and Doņa Paula swallowed. "I would never have thought seņorita Escalante could sink that low," she whispered in shock. "To let Zorro get her in the family way... Zorro, of all people!"
At the cornertable, Felipe frowned slightly. He hadnīt been paying much attention to the ladiesī chattering, but when he had heard them mentioning Zorro, he couldnīt help but listening in more carefully. And he had to call upon all his self-control not to let his eyes grow wide. Zorro would have gotten Victoria in the family way?! What nonsense! Sure, he was well aware of Diegoīs feelings for Victoria, and of his frustration having to dress up in order to court her since she wasnīt very interested in the ordinary Don Diego de la Vega. But Diego would never, ever do such a shameful thing! He was a gentleman, a real one, who couldnīt possibly bring any harm to any lady. Especially the lady he loved!
He watched the gossiping ladies go to their respective husbands. Whispers, gasps of surprise... Obviously this nonsensical rumour was spreading like wildfire, and there was nothing he could do!
A sudden silence fell over the room as Victoria appeared with the most recent orders. She halted for a moment, sensing the sudden censure. Every eye in the room was turned upon her, with contempt, with disdain and curiosity. Felipe felt sorry for her and tried to catch her eye with a comforting smile. But she looked down on the tray in her hands and started passing out the drinks. The coffee first; he couldnīt help but notice her quiet sigh of relief when she had disposed of that. It was so quiet that you heard every glass she put down on a table. And as soon as she disappeared through the curtain again, a storm of half-whispered censure filled the room around him.
Casually, Felipe got up and walked towards the kitchen. Now that the ladies had drawn attention to it, he, too, had noticed how pale she looked.
When he stepped through the curtain, he found Maria at the stove and Victoria with a bottle of wine in her hands. Maria looked at her inquiringly as Victoria bent down over the bottle in order to open it. Shyly but determined Felipe stepped forward and took the bottle out of her hands. She looked up in surprise.
"Iīll do that," he signed with a shy smile. She looked so vulnerable. He could easily imagine why Diego was so fond of her.
He had the bottle open within a minute, and with the tiniest smile Victoria accepted his timid chivalry.
"Are you allright?" he signed - slowly, so she would be able to follow him. "You look pale. Shall I go and get the doctor?"
Victoria shook her head and looked away. "Iīm fine." She grabbed a few onions from the counter and started to slice them for dinner. Both he and Maria saw the tears gathering in her eyes, and Felipe felt helplessly clumsy. What should he do? He couldnīt very well take her in his arms, could he? That was more Diegoīs - or Zorroīs style. Fortunately, Maria put a comforting arm around her shoulders.
"Iīm allright," Victoria sniffed. "Itīs the onions, really."
Felipe could easily hear the compassionate concern in Mariaīs voice. And after standing around a little longer in the awkward silence, he touched her arm to say goodbye and left by the back door. He had to get home. And fast! There was only one man who could put a halt to this malicious gossip, and he had to do it fast, before it was all over the territory! Nor Zorro, nor Diego could possibly stand aside to see seņorita Escalanteīs reputation being smudged like that!
PON ARRIVING at the hacienda Felipe barged in through the door and into the library. But only Don Alejandro was there.
"Hola Felipe! Whatīs the rush?"
Felipe waved something vague and ran towards Diegoīs quarters. But he wasnīt there either. Nor in the dining-room, the kitchen, the study... Hopefully he wasnīt in the cave, with Don Alejandro preventing him from going in there... But finally he found him in the garden, absorbed in a book.
Diego looked up when Felipe rushed towards him. "Hey, whatīs up?"
Felipe signed so hastily that he stumbled over his own signing, but Diego had no trouble understanding that Victoria was in trouble because of Zorro. His jaw tightened and he cast his book aside. "That disgusting De Soto! Is he using her as bait again? Come on, weīve got to stop this once and for all!"
He paced away towards the library with Felipe in tail. The young man tried to explain more, but since Diegoīs mind was set on getting to the cave as quickly as possible in order to save Victoria, he wasnīt paying much attention to his young friendīs urgent gestures.
Fortunately, Don Alejandro had gone elsewhere, so they could go down the secret passageway without any dodging around. Diego had already started taking off his blue caballero-jacket, but Felipe grabbed his arm and signed: "Not the alcalde!"
Diegoīs eyes narrowed. "Bandits?"
Felipe shook his head and started to explain what he had witnessed at the tavern just now: the gossiping ladies, Victoria crying and not looking very well, the rumour about Zorro having put her in the family way spreading through the tavern, and the sudden contempt with which the customers had treated the seņorita after that.
Diegoīs face turned livid as he started to grasp the story. Nervously he chewed his lip.
"You have to tell them!" Felipe urged him as Diego remained motionless. "Seņorita Escalante is truly miserable. You canīt let them despise her like that!"
But all Diego did was sinking down in a chair and bury his face in his hands. Felipe watched him incomprehensively. "Arenīt you going to do something?"
Diego moaned. "Oh, what a mess..."
Felipe frowned at his patronīs strange reaction. What was going on here?
But in the end Diego looked up. "Are you sure she was unwell?"
Felipe shrugged. "According to the ladies, she was green in the face and she had to swallow down nausea. But I only noticed she was rather pale. And she was definitely crying, even though she said it was because of the onions."
Diego rested his chin in his hands and looked away.
Several minutes passed in complete silence before Felipe mustered the courage to sign a general question of wonder and lack of understanding to his patron.
Diego looked up and shook his head. "I feel awful about having to admit it, Felipe, but... those rumours might just be true..."
Slowly, Felipeīs jaw dropped and his eyes grew wide as he understood the impact of Diegoīs words. "You...?" he finally managed to ask flabbergasted. "You...?! And... Victoria??"
Diego nodded miserably. "Itīs weeks ago," he started explaining as Felipe watched him incredulously. "I had climbed into her bedroom at night as I sometimes did when I just wanted to see her. To hold her. Stupid of course, her bedroom, of all places... But we never went any further than kissing, so I didnīt think... And that night... She was tired of waiting, she said later on. But she drew me into an embrace, so passionate, so overwhelming... Afterwards she admitted that she had seduced me on purpose. She wanted this to happen. I tried to use my brain and back out a few times, but she... she simply had me in her power... Believe me, Felipe: one lady is more dangerous than a whole army of soldiers! And so... I couldnīt stop myself, I couldnīt help it... I made love to her..."
There was another long silence. Felipe slowly closed his mouth, and in the end Diego sighed: "So there is a possibility indeed that Zorro... that I have made her... well, put her in the family way..."
Felipe sank down on a chair, too. His mind was racing around with questions and possible solutions. "Did you take off your mask?" was the first thing he dared to ask.
Diego shrugged. "No, I didnīt. But when youīre so close, so... intimate..."
"She might have guessed," Diego completed.
"Donīt you know?!"
"Iīve hardly seen her since. I hardly dare looking her in the eye as Diego now, and after what happened that night, Zorro wasnīt too keen anymore either on those nightly expeditions to the tavern." A tiny smile tugged at his lips. "I was scared to death that sheīd repeat that performance..."
Felipe nodded with understanding. "So what are you going to do?"
He sighed. "Iīll have to go and talk to her. I have to take my responsibility; I canīt let her being despised and censured by the whole town."
"You mean marrying her?" Felipe inquired cautiously.
Diego nodded. "There is nothing else to do, is there?"
"But youīre going to have to unmask for her if youīre going to marry her," Felipe signed worried. "Padre Benitez is a very nice man, but he wonīt let you get married as Zorro."
Diego heaved a sigh. "If that was my only worry... When the alcalde hears that Zorro has put Victoria in the family way, thereīs no chance that he will leave her in peace. Sheīll be tortured and flogged and eventually hanged..." He shuddered at the thought. "What have I gotten her in to?!" he moaned before continuing: "And even if he hasnīt heard yet, heīll get suspicious the minute heīll hear about me marrying Victoria. Before we know it, we both may be dangling from a rope..."
He sighed heavily and started to get up. "But first Iīll have to face Victoria. I only hope sheīs not in jail yet."
But Felipe grabbed his arm and motioned him to wait.
"What is it?" Diego inquired.
An impatient gesture told him to keep quiet, as Felipe tried to oversee the consequences of his idea. A slight smile appeared at his lips, and he pulled Diego back in his chair to unfold his plan. "Why donīt you save her reputation as yourself? An act of chivalry towards a dear friend in need?" he asked.
Diego frowned. "She doesnīt love me, Felipe; you know that. And besides..."
But Felipe continued already: "You go to her as her good friend Diego because youīve heard this malicious gossip, and you offer her your help, since you are aware of the fact that Zorro probably can not marry her for safety-reasons: it would be his death as well as hers. So you offer to marry her in Zorroīs place to save her reputation!"
Diego sighed. "Nice plan, but no one is going to buy that, Felipe. Everyone knows how Victoria thinks about me."
"Theyīll buy it as an act of chivalry," Felipe insisted. "After all, no one can doubt your affection for her." He rolled his eyes. "The way you tend to gaze at her in the tavern..."
Diego sat up with a start. "I do not gaze at her!"
"Yes, you do!" Felipe persisted. "A lot of people have noticed. Even Victoria herself has commented on it once or twice. Donīt you remember?"
Diego didnīt answer.
"Youīll only have to convince Victoria that you care for her so much that youīre willing to take over Zorroīs responsibility."
"My responsibility," Diego corrected him sharply.
"But you donīt have to tell her that right away! Please, Diego, give it a try. It would let Zorro off the alcaldeīs hook. And Victoria! And besides," a devilish twinkle sparkled in his eyes, "if you insist upon blaming yourself, you could always start the rumour that you have raped Victoria yourself and that itīs your child she might be carrying..."
Diego looked at him in disgust. "I would never...! Youīve been reading too many pulp magazines, my boy!"
Felipe shrugged, unmoved by the reproof. "But it would solve your problem as well as Zorroīs. And Victoriaīs," he stated with self-confidence.
Diego pondered a while, and finally he nodded. "It might solve a few problems, yes. But I donīt want to deceive Victoria anymore. Not after what happened. Canīt you see that?!"
Felipe sighed with resignation. "Very well, tell her the truth then if you really must. But that shouldnīt stop you from pretending to everyone else that youīve either raped her or that youīre being extremely chivalrous to the lady everyone knows you fancy anyway."
Diego sat quiet for a while. And in the end he had to give in. "I think you may be right. Iīll try this strategy of yours. I donīt see any other way..." He sighed heavily and got up to change into Zorroīs clothes. But once again Felipe stopped him.
"What is it now?" Diego snapped at him.
"Go to her as her dear friend Diego; not as the source of her troubles!" Felipe signed urgently.
"But I... No, youīre right." Diego cut short his own protest and headed back to the library.
"Would you like me to come with you?" Felipe offered as they crossed the room.
But Diego shook his head. "Thank you, but no. This is something Iīll have to do all by myself. Wait," he said as he thought of something. He dodged back to the fireplace and returned to the library within ten seconds. "If I can manage to sort out this mess alive, Iīll see you again." And all of a sudden he just had to hug him. "Gracias, amigo."
Then he stepped outside just as Don Alejandro came into the hall. "Felipe, could you give me a hand with..." And as he caught sight of his son outside he muttered: "Whatīs with Diego? He looks like heīs going to a hanging!"
Felipe only shrugged in response, and prayed that Don Alejandro would not have the gift of prophecy...
T WAS BUSY in the tavern, Diego noticed as he tied his horse. Dinnertime. And with such horrible rumours about the taverness going around, people were bound to show up in an even greater number than usual.
Quietly he cursed under his breath. But he decided to go in anyway and have dinner there. If he wanted to speak with her in private, heīd have to wait till closing-time anyway. Perhaps he could offer to help her clean up.
He entered the tavern, only to discover that all tables were occupied. For a moment he hesitated on the doorstep, but then he saw sergeant Mendozaīs face brighten.
"Buenas tardes, Don Diego! It has been quite a while since weīve seen you in town! How are you?"
"Fine. Just fine," Diego mumbled.
"Come and join us, Don Diego! Weīve got a vacant seat here."
Diego nodded gratefully and sat down between the cordial sergeant and Don Sebastian, a friend of his fatherīs. Quietly he looked around the room, while the sergeant happily chattered over his tamales. And he winced when he saw Victoria coming through the curtains. She was passing out trays, and taking up new orders right away. He couldnīt take his eyes of her - perhaps Felipe was right after all? - but she disappeared into the kitchen without even having come near their table.
Slowly he let go of a breath he hadnīt noticed he was holding. Although she hadnīt been near, he had seen enough to suspect that she was quite miserable. Whether that went for her physical condition as well was something he couldnīt tell; she seemed rather flustered to him instead of pale or green.
He turned his attention back to Mendoza. The sergeant was telling him about his latest encounter with Zorro, and he always considered those tales as highly instructive for Zorroīs upcoming exploits. Still, when Victoria appeared again, his mind went instantly back to worrying about her.
This time she came to their table. "Buenas tardes, Don Diego. What can I get for you?" She only just glanced at him before fixing her eyes on the table. As if she was unable to face the crowd.
Diegoīs heart ached. But he couldnīt very well go ahead here with dozens of other Angelinos around. So he simply ordered a portion of enchiladas and a glass of lemonade.
Victoria nodded her acknowledgement and proceeded to the next table without a word. But their short encounter had given Diego the opportunity to ascertain two things: first of all that Victoria was indeed absolutely miserable, and second: she was dead beat. His eyes followed her as she returned to the kitchen, and he had to hide his desire and his tormented state of mind quickly as Mendoza turned to him and in a loud whisper announced: "Have you heard the rumours about Zorro and the seņorita, Don Diego?"
For a moment Diegoīs eyes shot fire before he managed to control his emotions and ask casually: "No, whatīs that?"
Mendoza took another bite before spilling the news: "It is said that Zorro has put the seņorita in the family way," he explained.
With utter self-control Diego managed to just raise his eyebrows in disbelief. "And what does seņorita Escalante say about that?"
Mendoza swallowed down another bite of his gorgeous tamales. "She hasnīt said a word about it! Itīs just... you know, people put two and two together... And the fact that she doesnīt deny it - a woman with her temper...!"
Diego looked back at the table where Victoria was standing. "Well, sergeant," he said quietly but clearly audible for everyone around them, "it seems to me the people are jumping to conclusions - as is the case with most gossip. Have you considered the possibility of her being too embarrassed to either deny or confirm that story? After all, it is a rather painful subject, donīt you think?"
Sergeant Mendoza nodded awkwardly. "That is true..."
"And we might want to keep the alcalde unaware of this terrible piece of gossip," Diego continued. "We all know how jumpy he gets about Zorro. And I think the last thing the seņorita needs right now is a night in the jail with the gallows awaiting her. Donīt you agree?"
Mendoza swallowed. "Of course, Don Diego! We wouldnīt let the seņorita be hung just because she is in the family way!"
"Which you donīt know for sure yet," Diego pointed out again.
"Absolutely," Mendoza agreed. "After all, itīs none of the alcaldeīs business with whom the seņorita chooses to... ahem..." He coughed nervously. "You know..."
Diego put on a smile. "Exactly." He looked around from the corner of his eyes and noticed that several people around them had heard their discourse. Hopefully, this would cool off the worst of the gossip...
It was Maria who brought his food, and nor the rest of the evening was there any chance of just a few words of comfort to the obviously distressed seņorita. So in between the short chats with Mendoza and some other people, he just watched her in concern, and felt his anger rising every time he overheard someone making an insipid remark about her. But finally, with closing-time approaching, the crowd started to thin, and in the end there were but four men left.
Victoria appeared from the kitchen and announced: "If you gentlemen would be so kind as to leave now? It is closing-time."
The three men in the corner laughed rawly as they got up. "Why, are you expecting another visit from your masked lover, my dear?"
Victoria turned pale, but before she could open her mouth, Diego had stepped in between and with a deadly edge to his voice he said: "If insulting the seņorita is your way of showing your appreciation for her work, seņor, I think you should find some place else to spend your time and money."
The man snorted, but noisily he and his mates made for the door and stepped outside. Diego followed them and bolted the door behind them.
"What are you doing?" Victoria enquired in surprise.
He turned back to her. "Victoria," he said quietly, "youīre absolutely exhausted. Why donīt you let me help you clean the tavern, so you can have an early night for a change?"
Victoria looked at him in wonder. "You??"
"Yes, why not? Iīve got two hands, so I should be as able as anyone to wash dishes and scrub tables, donīt you think?"
"Yes, but..." She fell silent as she saw him start gathering glasses from the tables. The tiniest little smile touched the corners of her mouth. "Youīre a real friend, Diego."
He grinned awkwardly and disappeared into the kitchen. A real friend... yeah, sure...
They washed the dishes, scrubbed the tables and swept the floor in silence. And when they were done, Diego put Victoria on a chair in the kitchen, saying: "And now you get a drink from me. You look like you need it."
Slowly he poured two glasses of juice and tried to gather the courage to take up the horrible subject. But pouring juice doesnīt take much time, and far too soon he found himself sitting across the kitchen table. He looked at her with compassion. Yes, she was exceptionally pale indeed.
It took a few sips of orange juice for him to muster the courage to ask: "Whatīs the matter, Victoria?" As if he didnīt know! Oh, how he hated his own cowardice...
She looked up. "Havenīt you heard?"
He lowered his eyes in embarrassment and nodded. "Iīm sorry you find yourself in such a predicament..." Well, at least that was true...
Victoria sighed. "You donīt have to feel sorry for me, Diego. Itīs my own fault."
He looked up as he heard her gasp for breath, and all of a sudden she broke down in tears.
"Victoria!" He moved to sit next to her and took her in his arms. He rocked her lovingly, whispering idle words of comfort. But after no more than a few minutes she sat up again, trembling but determined. She had to tell someone. She had to confide in someone, or sheīd go mad! Especially since...
"Diego," she asked with a quavery voice, "you have been one of my best friends as long as I can remember. Perhaps even my very best friend. Can I... can I trust you? I mean... can I confide in you, ask your help, without having to worry about the story being all over town tomorrow?"
He looked a little hurt, and felt bad for it right away. It seemed he had become so good an actor that he couldnīt stop pretending, not even in such serious personal matters. "Of course you can trust me. You may ask me anything; I wonīt tell a soul."
She sighed with quiet relief. "I knew you wouldnīt. Diego," she had to swallow with difficulty, "Diego, you know about medicine and stuff, donīt you?"
He nodded. "A little." He hovered as he awaited her next question.
"Do you... how do you know a woman is... well... expecting?" Shyly she looked up in his face. He looked but a little shocked; she had expected it to be worse.
At the same time, Diego felt his blood turning to ice. So it was true...! "Do you mean..." he stammered, "do you mean you are...?!"
She shrugged slightly. "I donīt know. Maybe..."
He looked away from her to hide his own distress. And suddenly Victoria spilled the entire story to him. "It is true, Diego: I have slept with Zorro. I sort of tricked him to; it wasnīt his fault. But I was so tired of waiting for him... I so much want to have a husband, a family of my own... but it seems his quest never ends! So I came up with a scheme that would make him marry me: make love to him, let him get me with child, and then..."
Diego winced involuntarily. So not just that lovely nightmare of their lovenight, but the entire predicament they found themselves in at the moment was by her design?!?
However, there was no time to reflect on that horrid thought, as Victoria already continued: "Why canīt we pretend to fall in love in real life and then get married? Then at least we could live the rest of his life together. The alcalde uses me against Zorro even now, so it would make little difference if instead I married the man behind the mask. Perhaps even better: the alcalde might think that Iīm no longer interested in Zorro if Iīm married to... well, whoever he is. But the whole plan backfired... Zorro was terribly disappointed with me. I think I may have scared him off, for I havenīt seen him in private since. Oh, how he must despise me...!"
Diego felt a pang of guilt. Had he been wrong in avoiding any more private encounters with her? Perhaps she had needed to talk things over with him... and instead he had hidden in his cave...
But Victoria wasnīt finished yet: "And then there was this unnerving business about being with child or not. I know nothing of the matter, absolutely nothing! And I had no one to confide in and ask about it: as you know, my mother has been dead for over ten years, and I never saw Zorro in private again either. And in case I am not in the family way, Iīd rather keep that clandestine lovenight a secret to the town." She drew in her breath. "I am scared, Diego. I know I did all this with the sole purpose of getting myself in the family way. It was a stupid thing to do; I know that now. But right now Iīm just scared to death by the idea that I really might be having a baby. And more so since I seem to have lost Zorro, too. I had expected the people to censure me when theyīd find out, but I figured the happiness of finally marrying the man I love would be enough compensation. And now Zorro seems to have withdrawn, and itīs all far worse than I imagined. What am I to do!? Oh, if only I knew for sure whether I really am carrying his child...! If only Zorro could forgive me for what Iīve done, and perhaps..." Her voice trailed away. "And perhaps... perhaps marry me, too..."
She started crying again, and gently Diego pulled her against his chest. He coughed nervously. "Victoria..." Again he had to clear his throat. "Why donīt you marry me? If... If Zorro is unable to take his responsibility..."
She looked up at him through her tears and with a thoroughly incredulous expression on her face. "You?!"
He nodded solemnly. "I donīt know if you ever realized it, Victoria, but I love you, too. Iīve always loved you. And very much so."
She just stared at him.
"I love you. And I would do anything to help you." He swallowed. "If Zorro canīt, why donīt you let me marry you...? I promise I will take very good care of you. And it would definitely save your reputation. And to avoid the alcalde becoming suspicious about you carrying Zorroīs child, we could even say it is my baby."
Slowly Victoria shook her head. "Diego... you are a very, very dear friend... but I can not possibly accept you taking the responsibility for my own shameless schemes... To partake in the disgrace I brought on all by myself..."
He looked her in the eye. Quietly and solemnly. "But it is my responsibility, seņorita," he said slowly with the deeper voice he used as Zorro.
She eyed him with wonder. "Your responsibility? How...? What...?"
Then she noticed him pulling something black out of his pocket. A large piece of black silk. Slowly, without taking his eyes off her, he raised his hands and tied the mask at the back of his head with the experience from years. Victoria watched him with her mouth open. Recognition fought its way through her brain: the dark blue eyes, the strong jaw, the mustache, the determined chin, the large head... "You!?" she gasped.
And then she fainted in his arms.
It didnīt take long for her to regain consciousness. She was still in Zorro-Diegoīs arms, who - with a worried look - lightly slapped her on the cheek to help her come to.
"Zorro?" she mumbled astonished. "You are Zorro?"
Zorro in Diegoīs clothes nodded. "Yes. I am Zorro. I am the one you made love to a few months ago, and if indeed you are carrying Zorroīs child, then it is my child you are carrying." It was stated firmly enough, but he looked at her face with plain anxiety. Would she be able to accept him as the man behind the mask? Or...?
Silently she shook her head as she took in his features. Diego with Zorroīs mask... It looked ridiculous, but there was no denying: she was looking into Zorroīs eyes. Carefully she pulled back the mask a little. Indeed: put together it really was Diego looking at her. And when she pulled the mask in place again, it was Zorro. It was amazing; she tried it again and again until Zorro-Diego took hold of her hands.
"Itīs hard to believe, isnīt it? But it is true: I am Zorro, Victoria."
She nodded speechless; then shook her head vigorously as to clear her thoughts. "But... Diego isnīt anything like Zorro! He canīt handle a sword, he..." Apprehension dawned upon her. "You just pretended to be so... so clumsy?! In order not to draw attention?"
He nodded again. "Victoria..."
But she shuddered and pushed him away. "And you were here, right under my nose all this time, and you never told me!? How could you! You kept me dangling all those years...! You knew how much I wanted a family, and yet you chose not to tell me?! To keep me waiting for seven years?! You are disgusting, Diego de la Vega! I hate you! Well, I hope youīve enjoyed your power over me, because itīs over!"
Diego turned livid as she ranted on: "You used me, Diego! Coming in to snatch a few kisses, and then off again and heaven knows when I might see you again! I bet it was a nice little offspin of your Zorro-game, wasnīt it? How you must have laughed at me when you came to the tavern as Diego, and hearing me swooning over Zorro! Oh, I hate you, I hate you, I hate you!!! And now you want to marry me? Well, forget it! I wonīt let you play with my heart anymore! There!" She jumped up and slapped him in the face. But Zorro was quick and grabbed her wrist before she could run away.
"Let go of me!" Victoria demanded furiously.
"No!" Zorroīs voice said hoarsely. "You listen to me first!" He jumped up, too, and took hold of her other arm as well. "I have never laughed at you, Victoria! The reason I couldnīt tell you..."
"I donīt want to hear it!" she yelled, and wriggled to get out of his grip. But his hands were strong. Like Zorroīs.
"You think I actually enjoyed this masquerade?" he demanded indignified. "Playing the peopleīs hero maybe, yes, but do you realize what sacrifices I have to make to keep my identity a secret? My entire life is trapped by this charade! I had to lead my very own father to believe that his only son is a coward, and to see him being thoroughly disappointed in me, over and over again! I have half the town laughing at me behind my back because of my supposed indolence! I have to dress up to court the lady I love, because she mostly overlooks me as myself! I want nothing more than to get married and have a family of my own, but I canīt because of the threat of reprisal from the alcalde! Now you think that is fun!?"
He pulled off his mask in frustration and threw it down on the table. Victoria watched him wide-eyed, and her temper started to fade away as his words sank in with her. The worst of Diegoīs anger seemed to subside, too, for he continued in a more sad tone: "Now youīve sort of framed me into marrying you. It is true: Iīd like nothing more, because I love you, I love you more than anything in this world. More than my life. But it also makes me tremble for fear of the conclusions the alcalde may come to when he hears about this. Victoria, do you fully realize that I am a wanted criminal with a prize on my head? Donīt you see that there is every chance of us - you and me - dangling from a rope in no time? The alcalde doesnīt need proof; the mere fact of me marrying you might well be enough for him to conclude that Iīm Zorro. And he wonīt hesitate to hang you alongside with me, as my accomplice. Donīt you see that I couldnīt risk that?"
It was enough to have Victoria burst out in tears again. "Oh Zorro, what have I done!?" she cried.
He let out a sigh and took her in his arms again. "Thatīs what Iīve been asking myself, too: īWhat have I done?ī But there is nothing we can change about it. Iīll marry you; I wouldnīt have it any other way. That is: if youīll still have me. But I love you, and Iīm ever so tired of waiting, too. I want... I need you with me."
Victoria sniffed. "Can you ever forgive me?"
He took a deep breath before answering: "If you can forgive me for the secrecy I only kept to insure your safety, I think I could forgive you for forcing me to do what I want most of all..." He smiled. "To marry you and have a family of our own and live the rest of our lives together, as man and wife..."
She looked up at him, and carefully he brushed a trickling tear from her cheek.
"I love you, Victoria," she heard in a hoarse whisper. "I love you so very, very much..."
"I... I think I love you, too," she stammered. "But... but I think I might need some time to get used to the idea..."
He nodded with a sad smile. "I understand." He took another breath before continuing: "But before we decide on how to play this game for the town, weīll have to find out first whether you really are expecting or not. For if you are, we may not have so much time left before it starts to show."
Victoria shivered. "When does it start to show? For if I really am in the family way, it must be nearly three months already!"
Diego shrugged apologetically. "I donīt know. Iīll have to catch up on that. I could see what I can find out, and come by here during siesta tomorrow, if you like."
"Now what is it that makes you think you might be expecting? Symptoms etcetera," he enquired.
Another shiver went down Victoriaīs spine. "I... I..." She found it hard to say her suspicions out loud, as if stating them clearly would turn them into a self-fulfilling prophecy. "I... Iīve been feeling rather uneasy in the stomach. And certain foods and smells make me..." She swallowed with difficulty. "... make me nearly throw up. Do make me throw up. The mere thought of it seems to turn my stomach upside down." Another swallowing. īDonīt think about coffee!ī she told herself! "And lately I feel so tired that I could sleep for days... And then Iīve missed out on my period twice now. Havenīt had it since I made love to Zo... to you..." She hesitated. "Are you really Zorro?"
He nodded solemnly. "You want proof?"
She didnīt dare to say īyesī, even though more proof was exactly what she wanted. He saw the emotions crossing her face, and he did the only possible thing he could think of: he cupped her tearstained face in his large hands and kissed her. Softly, superficially first, but as Victoria came to recognize its familiarity, their kiss grew more ardent and passionate.
"Now do you believe me?" Diego asked tormented as he finally pulled away.
She nodded embarrassed. "Iīm sorry, Diego. I do believe you. I do believe you are him."
He still looked at her with some doubt. But she put her hands around his musculous chest and snuggled up to him. "I love you."
He sighed and pulled her into his embrace as well. "I love you, too."
It was past midnight by the time he came home and found Felipe waiting for him in the library.
"And?" the young man signed inquiringly.
But Diego gestured toward the fireplace, and they both sat down at the oak desk in Zorroīs secret cave.
"Well?" Felipe inquired impatiently when his patron just kept staring at the wall.
Diego let out a long sigh. "I donīt know, Felipe. Itīs not entirely certain that indeed she is expecting. She might be; Iīll have to catch up on some reading to be able to figure out more." Another sigh. "And yes, I have told her. And I will marry her. But weīll have to make sure whether or not she really is expecting before we can decide what act weīre going to put on for the people and the alcalde." He sighed again and buried his face in his hands. "Of all the ways I have ever imagined telling her... this must be the worst..."
HE NEXT DAY Diego showed up at the tavernīs back door just when Victoria had closed for siesta.
"Buenos dias, Diego," she said. But she turned away immediately with an embarrassed blush to put away a few pots.
"Victoria..." He closed the door behind him, and Victoria noticed he was again using his deeper Zorro-voice.
"How are you feeling?" he enquired cautiously.
"Itīs okay," she answered. "Have you come up with something from your books?"
Diego nodded and walked over to her. She was still occupying herself with the pots and pans on the counter; she didnīt have the guts to turn and face him.
He took a deep breath for courage, and then he told her quietly: "It seems the experts donīt really agree on whether one can be entirely certain yet at this stage, but the symptoms you mentioned last night indicate that there is every possibility of you indeed being with child..." He took hold of her shoulders as he noticed her shuddering. Victoria tried to take a deep breath, but her legs faltered, and Diego could only just catch her before she hit the floor. A hiccup and a sob welled up from her chest. Diego pulled her back on her feet and turned her around to take her in his arms. Gently he stroked her back and placed some comforting kisses in her soft hair. "Hey, youīre going to be allright, okay? I promise! Iīll do everything in my power to pull you through this ordeal," he soothed her.
Victoria hugged him tight to show her gratitude, but then she looked up at him. "So what are we going to do?"
He sighed. "Thatīs what weīll have to discuss now." He took a deep breath and let go of her. "Victoria..." He tried to swallow a sudden lump in his throat, and then he thought of something. He knelt down and took both her hands in his. Victoria noticed there still was a terribly uncertain and frightened look in his eyes when he looked up to her. And he had to swallow another lump before he managed to put his unnerving question to words: "Dearest Victoria, will you marry me? All of me? Not just the dashing hero, but the quiet, peace-loving Diego as well?"
She heard the plea and the fear of rejection in his voice. The unbelievable lack of self-confidence in this man who in fact was the hero of the territory! How sweet, how dear he was to her!
She blinked her tears away. She couldnīt keep him in agony; she had to answer the question. She, too, struggled with a lump in her throat, but fortunately she managed to get out a croaky: "I will."
Diego could not yet believe his ears. "You do?!"
She couldnīt help a loving chuckle. "Yes, I do. Honestly. I do want to marry you. All of you."
His mind struggled to digest her assurance, but then he jumped up with joy and relief and hugged her so tight to his chest that she giggled: "Hey, be careful with our offspring, seņor!"
Immediately he let go of her with a sheepish grin. She smiled up to him, and wondered why she had never noticed that Diego - just like Zorro - was quite uncommonly tall. But she loved every inch of him.
"Besides..." Even though a very happy smile now radiated from her face, she couldnīt resist teasing him: "Besides, what are you so worried about? You already had asked me to marry you - the man behind the mask. And I had accepted, had I not? I even have a beautiful engagement-ring to prove it!"
He smiled. "And very soon you will be able to wear it in public. And as for my anxiety: well, things have changed a bit since I proposed to you back then."
She chuckled. "You can say that again..."
"And only yesterday you yelled at me that you hated me and that youīd never marry me," he reminded her.
Now it was her turn for a sheepish grin. "Oh well, you know me... When Iīm angry, I always yell first and think later..." She chuckled. But then she sobered. She laid her hands on his chest and looked up into his kind, loving eyes. "Diego, you need never to worry about my love for you. Iīve been thinking about it all night: you have shown me that one plus one does not necessarily make two. Diego is my best friend. He always has been. I couldnīt wish for a better one, and I have always loved him for it - as my dearest friend. The only thing that prevented me from falling in love with him was his apparent lack of initiative and passion. That was something I found in Zorro. But even though Zorro was my passionate lover, we never got the chance to become friends. That was something I had with you. With Diego. So now that my very best friend and my passionate lover have turned out to be one and the same - how could I not love all of him? In his heart, I know now that Zorro is quite comfortable at home with a book, and that he has a great passion for art and science and stuff. And at the same time, I know now that my friend Diego regularly puts his own life at risk to save the people from the alcaldeīs cruelty. So one plus one sometimes makes only one man. And that is the man I love with all my heart."
Diego looked down at her. He was so moved by her declaration that for once he was completely at a loss for words. Fortunately, there are other ways of expressing oneīs feelings. So he bent down over her and kissed her tenderly.
HE FIRST THING Diego did when he came home late that afternoon was confessing a few things to his father. He found him in the garden, busy tending the flowers.
"Father, I would like to talk to you, please."
Don Alejandro looked up. "Well, go ahead, son. By the way, have you heard that preposterous story about Zorro having put Victoria Escalante in the family way? The nonsense! Don Sebastian was here earlier today, and he mentioned it. Can you imagine: Zorro, the perfect gentleman towards all the ladies in general, and particularly towards Victoria! He may be brilliant in many ways, but I donīt see him capable of taking advantage of the seņorita like that! He would never!" Don Alejandro got up and took off his gardening-gloves, thus not noticing his son nervously chewing his lip.
"Well, what is it, son?" Don Alejandro looked inquiringly upon his son.
"Ehm... well..." Diego swallowed. "Iīd rather have this talk in private. And I have to show you something."
Don Alejandro raised his eyebrows. "In private, huh? Well, where do you want to go?"
But Diego already led the way to the library.
"Well, what is it?" Don Alejandro demanded as he saw his son hesitating again in front of the fireplace.
Diego turned to face him. "Father, do you remember when I was about ten years old, that you showed me the secret passageway that led from the hacienda into the hills?"
"That old cave? Yes, I remember." Don Alejandro smiled at his own childhood memories. "My brothers and I used to turn the place inside out. We explored every little corner, convinced as we were that it was the perfect place to hide a secret treasure. And I remember you following similar pursuits at the time. But there is nothing but rocks and dirt down there. Is there?" he added in puzzlement. "Why? Have you found something down there?"
Diego didnīt venture an answer; he just pressed the secret lever and led the way past the moving panel in the fireplace. Don Alejandro followed, and the panel closed again behind him.
When he reached the bottom of the steps, Diego stepped aside to give his father a good view of Zorroīs hide-out annex laboratory. And Don Alejandro looked around in amazement.
"Well, well..." he said slowly. "I had no idea... But this certainly is a perfect place for... what is this?" he asked in wonder.
"A laboratory," Diego explained hesitantly. It seemed his father was so much in awe over the many glasstubes and bekers and everything, that he hadnīt even noticed Toronado and Zorroīs outfit yet. "This is where I conduct experiments. In chemistry, in physics..."
Don Alejandro put down a beker with some green fluid in it. "Experiments?!" he exclaimed. "Well, I suppose I should be grateful that youīre just blowing up this cave some day, and not the entire hacienda!" He chuckled at the sight of Diegoīs baffled face. "Just kidding, son. So... what do you do here?"
Diego opened his mouth to respond, but someone else answered before he could and a startled Don Alejandro turned around at the whinnying sound of a horse. His eyes grew wide when he discovered the big black stallion in the corner.
"Madre de Dios," he mumbled. "Diego, why is there a..." He stopped short as his eyes - turning back to his son - passed the coat-rack with Zorroīs outfit: the silk cape, the hat, the beautiful sword, the black clothes... For a moment he just stared. And then he mumbled to himself: "So it is true..."
Now it was Diegoīs turn to be astonished. "You knew?!"
"I suspected it," Don Alejandro admitted softly as he tore his eyes away from the masked heroīs outfit to fix on his son. "Oh, not until recently," he added as he saw Diegoīs incredulous and rather disappointed expression. "You had me fooled for years! But a few minor details recently made me wonder. By themselves, they were not that extraordinary. But when put together..." He swallowed hard. "My son..." he uttered croaky. "My son... Zorro! My son, the champion of justice, the defender of the people... my son!" He stepped forward and hugged his son. Hard. "Oh Diego, Iīm so proud I... I could burst!"
Diego hugged his father back. It felt good to finally tell him the truth. To finally show his father who he really was. And it felt ever so good to see his father finally being really proud of his son, without having to force himself to it. But at the same time he hovered for the second part of the news he had to tell him. A part that was not likely to be received with similar approval.
Don Alejandro let go of him. Diego noticed he beamed with pride, but there was regret in his eyes as well.
"Diego... when I think about all those harsh things I have said to you over the past years... Will you ever be able to forgive me?"
With a shy smile Diego shook his head. "There is nothing to forgive, father. I can not deny that your reproof hurt me - believe me, it was one of the hardest parts of this masquerade. But those remarks were not unjustified towards the Diego I wanted you and everyone else to see."
His father nodded pensively. "Yes. Perhaps you are right. Then maybe I can make amends by being excessively proud of you from now on?"
Diego grinned. "As long as you donīt show it too excessively in public? After all, we wouldnīt want to give the alcalde too many pointers."
"No, definitely not!" Don Alejandro declared. He lowered himself on a chair. "To think that you, my son Diego, have been living a double life all this time... And kept this secret to yourself for what... six years?"
"Seven," Diego corrected him. "And I wasnīt entirely on my own: Felipe has been in it from the beginning. He was the one who gave me the idea in the first place."
"Felipe?!" Don Alejandro frowned in alarm. "Diego, I remember you... well, Zorro... I remember you saying that it was too dangerous for anyone to know your identity because of what the alcalde would do to anyone who knew. And yet you had no scruples letting a young boy like Felipe run that risk?!"
Diego looked down. Actually, he had never really thought of Felipe in that way. Felipe had simply always been there. As his friend, his only confidant... As his beloved baby brother, who looked up to him no matter what he did... He shuddered as he realized all of a sudden at what risk he had put the boy all those years. "Well, I..." he struggled to explain. "As I said, it was his idea in the first place. So even if I hadnīt told him, he would easily have guessed right away that I was this masked avenger. And Zorro needed an assistant. An accomplice who could come and go as he pleased without drawing attention. And youīll have to admit that such is easier to accomplish for a servant-boy like Felipe than - say yourself, as a respected caballero. Most of the time people donīt even count a servantīs presence; they act as if he isnīt even there. So all those times that Zorro appeared out of nowhere, that was mostly thanks to Felipe. As was Zorroīs always knowing what was going on in town."
Don Alejandro shook his head. "Thatīs all very well, but I still think it was quite irresponsible of you to get Felipe into this. And besides: he may be an intelligent young lad, but how could he possibly know what is going on in town? Most people avoid contact with him altogether because they simply have no idea how to communicate with a deafmute!"
Diego smiled. "Exactly, that was just the trick! Felipe is not deaf, father. He can hear perfectly well. He told me he regained his hearing while I was in Spain. But he was afraid that weīd treat him differently if we knew he could hear. So he went on pretending to be deaf. I only discovered by accident that he could hear."
Don Alejandro was silent, trying to digest all this new information. "Well," he said in the end, "it seems I have not only one, but two of those secretive foxes sneaking around the hacienda then." He sighed. "To think that my son is Zorro..." Then another thought struck him: "What about Victoria?"
Diego winced. "What about her?"
His father smiled. "You may have fooled me in many ways, son, but Iīm not a complete idiot, you know. I am well aware of your feelings for Victoria Escalante." He chuckled. "Quite amusing, isnīt it? You not standing a chance with her because of her love for your alter ego!"
Diegoīs jaw tightened. "Yes, that was a real Gordian knot I got myself in to. And I assure you that it was not even remotely funny."
Don Alejandro tried hard to straighten his face. "Yes, I can see that. But to think that you were your own rival for her affections..." He froze, and Diego looked up in concern and apprehension. "Diego," Don Alejandro demanded hoarsely, "you telling me all this - now... It doesnīt have to do anything with that rumour about...?"
The question remained unfinished, but Diego knew all too well what his father meant. He looked his father in the eye, took a deep breath for courage and nodded as he slowly exhaled.
"Diego, you didnīt," his father reproached toneless.
Again Diego nodded. "We did."
Don Alejandro stared at him in disbelief; then he buried his face in his hands and groaned. "Diego, Diego... What have you done!?"
Diego sighed. "Well, we got carried away one night and..."
"I donīt want to hear it," came the moan from his father.
But Diego continued stubbornly: "I know very well that we were wrong in this, father. We got carried away that time, and I have no other apology to offer than the simple fact that we love each other with all our heart, and if it hadnīt been for Zorro, Victoria and I would have been married years ago."
Don Alejandro looked up. "Do you mean she knew your identity?!"
"No. I didnīt tell her until last night, when she told me she was... ehm... expecting. Probably, that is. But I have every intention of assuming my responsibilities towards her. She has already agreed to marry me. As soon as may be."
Another moan came from his father. "Diego, you canīt just get married like that! Youīre a De la Vega! You have responsibilities towards your family!"
Diegoīs jaw tightened. "My first responsibility now is to keep Victoria and my child out of trouble. And there will be trouble; I can assure you that! When the alcalde hears about this..." He hesitated. "Weīll try to mislead him by starting other, false rumours. But Ignacio de Soto is not stupid; it wonīt take advanced calculation for him - or anyone - to figure out that I am Zorro. And you know as well as I do what the result would be: weīd both be dangling from a rope in no time. So weīve decided that - if the worst comes to the worst - we will flee from the Spanish territories, and start a new life in the United States. And if it does come to that, I want you to know that Iīve had my will drawn up years ago, making Felipe my principal heir as if he were my first born son. For thatīs what he is to me. So if I have to leave the territory, Felipe will inherit everything you leave to me upon your death."
Don Alejandro just sat there, staring at him. "And you sit here, cool as a fish, telling me about the provisions youīve made in the case of your death?!" he finally struggled out.
Diego raised his eyebrows in wonder; then he laughed shortly. A laugh with no joy. "Father, you may be thrilled to have Zorro for a son, but according to the government Iīm nothing but an outlaw. And on top of that a prize-catch for every bounty-hunter in the territory. Every time I dress up as Zorro could be my last; Zorro can get a bullet through his heart the moment he leaves this cave. I have to think of the possibility. And after a few close encounters with death, I thought it better to make up my will. Just in case."
They both fell silent for a while. "But even if De Soto wouldnīt suspect a thing," Diego continued tormented in the end, "how could I possibly go on putting my life at stake as Zorro? How could I possibly risk widowing Victoria? And the last thing I want is for my child to grow up without a father..." He shuddered, and Don Alejandro couldnīt possibly be blind to his sonīs distress. He placed his hand comforting over his sonīs.
"Yes. Marriage, and especially fatherhood does tend to change a manīs outlook on life. But thatīs something youīll have to come to terms with yourself, son. All I can say is that I am convinced you are going to be a wonderful father."
Diego smiled weakly in response, but all of a sudden he sat up in awe as the magnificent felicity struck him: "I am going to be a father!"
"Yes, and I am finally going to have those grandchildren I have been bugging you about for years!" his father agreed.
But yet another worry popped up in Diegoīs mind: "You will accept Victoria as my wife, wonīt you? And our child as your grandson? For if you plan to treat them as pariahs because of... Then Iīd rather leave for the United States right away!"
Don Alejandro smiled somewhat wanly. "Now when did you hear me say that? Relax, son. Ever since Victoria lost her parents, I have felt a particular responsibility and love towards her. As if she were the daughter I never had, for she reminds me of your mother. I thought you knew that. And as for this child... well, I canīt say I am very happy about the way it has been conceived, but that is hardly the childīs fault, is it? So how could I blame him for something his parents did?"
Diego smiled warily.
"I understand, son," Don Alejandro continued in a lower voice. "At least I think I do. You and Victoria have loved each other for so long, while unselfishly sacrificing your personal happiness to fight for a public cause... But remember the proverb of the pitcher going to the well? I think you both may have had enough. Seven years is a long time to put your life on hold. You have done so much for the people of this pueblo; you have given up so much of your own life... Perhaps the time has come to reclaim your life and seek to enhance your own personal happiness. And to be honest, son, I think youīve deserved it."
Diego sighed. "Thatīs what Victoria said, too..."
At that moment Felipe came bursting in through the secret passageway. Upon seeing Don Alejandro sitting there, he halted with a puzzled frown, but then he turned his attention to Diego and started signing hurriedly.
Diegoīs jaw tightened. "The alcalde has got word about the story and he has put Victoria in jail," he translated for his father as he jumped up to get changed.
Don Alejandro jumped up, too. "Iīll come with you!"
The new commanding tone in his sonīs voice startled Don Alejandro to a halt. "But I..."
"No!" Diego repeated as he changed into his black shirt. "I am already putting you in a lot more danger than I should wish now that I had to tell you my secret. I will not have you put out your neck unnecessarily. I can handle the alcalde, donīt you worry about that. But you stay here, comprende? Zorro rides alone!"
Don Alejandro looked a bit hurt. "Son, I just want to help you!"
"The best way of helping me is by staying here, father. Otherwise I might have to rescue you as well as Victoria."
"But this is madness!" Don Alejandro raised his voice. "There will be heaps of lancers, and..."
"Which has never bothered Zorro before, has it?" Diego enquired coolly. He put his hand on his fatherīs shoulder; all of a sudden the son claimed authority over his father. "Try to keep the same blind faith in Zorroīs abilities that youīve always had, father. Even now that you know itīs me. Donīt forget that I misled you as much as Diego de la Vega as I did as Zorro. Your son Diego is fully equal to the generally admired skills of Zorro. So donīt make me tie you up. You stay here, and Iīll handle the alcalde by myself. As Iīve always done."
For a long moment, father and son looked one another in the eye. Two strong wills combatted in silence. And it was the father who had to give in to the determination of the son: "Allright then. You go alone. But Iīll be worried sick till I see you return safe and sound!"
Diego chuckled self-confidently. "Yet another reason why I never told you."
OOMING in the shadows, Zorro took in the situation of the alcaldeīs office and the cuartel. Obviously the alcalde had put every lancer out on duty, for they were forming a ring around the building, standing less than two meters apart. There was no way to break through such a cordon unnoticed. And heīd prefer to speak with the alcalde in private tonight.
There was still light coming from the office, so De Soto was probably waiting for him there, as a spider in his webb. Carefully he considered his options. The roof provided an opportunity to get inside unnoticed. But one peep from the alcalde and heīd have thirty lancers aiming at his back. They never hit him - actually, he suspected that several of them always missed on purpose - but this was a time to talk, not to fight. So heīd have to get those lancers away on some wildgoose-chase. Perhaps his friend Mendoza could help?
He crept a little closer and watched the guarding lancers intently. Where was Mendoza?
He didnīt have to wait long: sergeant Mendoza appeared around the corner. He was continually checking up on his men, now and then being startled by some sound of the desertnight. That gave Zorro an idea. He grabbed a handful of sand, and the next time the sergeant rounded the corner he threw the sand in a nearby thornbush.
Mendoza jumped around. "Madre de Dios, what was that?" He peered into the darkness.
The private behind him softly enquired: "What was that sound, sergeant?"
"I donīt know!" Mendoza hissed back at him. "Iīll go and check it out; you stay here on guard in case Zorro shows up."
Hesitantly he moved towards the dark shadows of the adjoining building. Swiftly, Zorro moved behind the back wall, out of sight from the lancers. And when Mendoza peered around the corner, ready to run, he whispered cordially: "Buenas tardes, sergeant!"
Mendoza jumped again, but before he could utter a sound he felt Zorroīs gloved hand over his mouth.
"Quiet, my friend. We donīt want to raise the alarm just yet, do we?"
He took away his hand and Mendoza hissed worried: "Zorro! The alcalde has the entire cuartel surrounded, and given the order that we should shoot to kill if you try to get in!"
Zorro nodded. "I noticed. Thatīs why I need your help tonight."
Mendoza looked flabbergasted. "You...? You want help from me?!"
"Of course!" Zorro answered lightheartedly. "Thatīs what friends are for, isnīt it?"
Mendoza swallowed. "True... But Zorro, it wasnīt my fault that the seņorita was arrested! Someone else must have dropped the word to the alcalde; I havenīt said a thing!"
"Donīt worry, sergeant. I believe you. I know you are far too honourable a man to cause the seņorita any harm."
Sergeant Mendoza grew with unexpected pride. "Honourable, yes. Thatīs what I am. I would never harm a single hair on the seņoritaīs head."
"Exactly." Zorro nodded in approval. "Now I need to talk to the alcalde in private to rescue seņorita Escalante. So I need those lancers out of the way. Now listen carefully: I will create some havoc at the back here. When you hear it, I want you to call all your lancers together. Make them think youīve seen Zorro running off into the desert, and take all of them to pursue me away from the town. Make sure they do not return for at least half an hour, and the seņorita will be in safety. Thanks to you."
Mendoza swallowed. "But if the alcalde finds out I helped you, heīll hang me on the spot!"
Zorro smiled and put his hand on the sergeantīs shoulder. "Now why would I let that happen to my friend..."
Mendoza swallowed again, this time with emotion.
"Now go," Zorro urged him. "And keep your ears open for our little diversion."
He dodged back into the darkness and Mendoza returned to his rounds. But he wasnīt paying as much attention to his men as he had been before. For a radiant smile shone from his face, and over and over again he mumbled to himself: "Iīve got a friend who trusts me to help him!"
The idea was so wonderful to him that he would have missed Zorroīs little diversion entirely if it hadnīt been for the sudden nervousness of the lancers. He remembered just in time what Zorro had asked him to do as the rustling sound in the dry thistles of the prairie already faded away. He jumped up, ran a few meters into the darkness and then he cried out: "Zorro! Lancers, after him!!" He stumbled away over the uneven prairieground with all the lancers in tail.
From his hide-out behind a barn Zorro watched them disappear into the night. "I owe you one, sergeant," he mumbled.
HEN THE LANCERS were out of earshot, he stepped out of the shadows and calmly walked over to the alcaldeīs office. The door wasnīt even locked, and within a second he was inside, facing two pistols aimed at him by a nastily smiling alcalde.
"Buenas tardes, seņor Zorro," he sneered. "I heard you gave my lancers the slip. But let me assure you that I am not so easily deceived." His face hardened. "Prepare to die, Zorro."
"Now why would I want to do that?" Zorro enquired casually. He dived quickly to the ground as the alcalde pulled the trigger on both pistols at once, but bounced back on his feet again before the alcalde had had the chance to throw aside the pistols and draw his sword. The bullets had harmlessly hit the door.
Zorro needed only three steps to come up to the alcalde and grab his wrist to prevent him from drawing his sword. "Iīm here to talk this time, alcalde. Not to fight."
"Talk! Ha!" The alcalde snorted. "Well, Zorro, I am not here to talk. I am here to kill!"
Zorro sighed. "Talking is always better than fighting, seņor. But if weīre going to be stubborn about it..." With one swift move he unsheathed his sword and held it over the alcaldeīs throat. With his other hand he undid the alcaldeīs belt with the sword and cast it away to the other side of the room. "There. If you are more comfortable talking this way, thatīs fine with me. Though I must say I hate all forms of hostility."
"Yeah, sure..." the alcalde growled. "I shall see you hang, Zorro... even if itīs the last thing I do on this earth!"
"Thatīs old news, alcalde. Now letīs get to the point, shall we? My patience is wearing rather thin tonight. On what ground have you arrested seņorita Escalante?"
"Ha! Havenīt you heard, outlaw? By getting the seņorita in the family way you have finally made the kind of fatal mistake I have always waited for."
"Since when is having an illegitimate child a reason to throw a woman in jail?" Zorro demanded sternly. "Not even a mistress of the king himself is treated that way. Unless you regard me higher than the king of course?"
The alcalde snorted. "I regard you as the scum of the earth, Zorro! And thatīs why I put the seņorita behind bars, if you hadnīt figured that one out on your own. Having been intimate enough with you to get in the family way, she must know your identity. And Iīm going to keep her here until she reveals that secret to me."
"You are mistaken, alcalde. The seņorita does not know my identity, so there is nothing for her to reveal. And what makes you so sure that I am responsible for her present state?"
"Well, thatīs rather obvious, isnīt it?" De Soto chuckled. "Everyone knows of her affair with you, so itīs just putting two and two together."
"Wrong again, alcalde!" Zorroīs voice was turning to ice. "Two and two does not always make four. Apparently youīre only interested in the townīs gossip and social intercourse when it suits your evil schemes! Otherwise you would have been well aware of the seņorita turning her attention elsewhere!"
The alcalde laughed in disbelief. "You mean to tell me that the seņorita has finally come to her senses and jilted you?"
"Seņorita Escalante has been longing for years to get on with her life and have a family and children," Zorro told him in that same icy tone. "And thanks to you and your predecessor, alcalde, I was unable to give her that. And since there is not the slightest indication of your improvement by ending your cruelty and greedy oppression, I decided to let her go so that she finally may have a chance of seeing her dream come true. At first she refused, but in the end she agreed. My love for her is still as strong as it ever was, but since that day I have not had any private encounters with the seņorita until last night, when I heard about that horrid gossip-story."
"My, my, how chivalrous of you," the alcalde commented mockingly. "But you see, Zorro, that still doesnīt change my facts. The declaration of an outlaw such as yourself does not carry any weight with me whatsoever."
"Then ask the seņorita and the childīs father!"
The alcalde could barely hold back a smile. "And who might that be, if itīs not you?"
"Don Diego de la Vega." There, it was out.
The alcalde gasped; then he snorted a disdainful laugh. "Young De la Vega, eh? That spineless good-for-nothing would be able to romance the fiery seņorita...? Excuse me, Zorro, but that seems highly unlikely to me."
Zorro sighed with regret. "Yes. Love does move in mysterious ways, does it not? But ask them yourself, if you donīt believe me."
The alcalde snorted once again. "Ask De la Vega?! Why, everyone knows he has always had a soft spot for the seņorita." Zorro could only just keep himself from wincing. Perhaps Felipe did have a point? But the alcalde went on: "No doubt he will try to protect her in his own stupid way. But Iīm sure he would never dare to do anything that would get her - or himself - in trouble!"
Zorro grabbed him by the neck. "Not that it is any of your business, but I myself have paid young De la Vega a visit this evening. I, too, was well aware of his īsoft spotī for the seņorita, and he had no trouble convincing me of his sincere love for her. He also admitted that indeed he is the father of the child she is carrying, and that he intends to marry the seņorita within the month."
"Ha! Humbug! Heīs just covering for you, thatīs what! This whole town is against me, as always!"
Zorroīs grip tightened. "Now why would a wealthy, well-respected caballero with bloodlines to the Spanish throne wish to tarnish his reputation and disgrace his family for a child that is not even his?!"
To his surprise, De Soto remained silent. He seemed to weigh the odds of that last statement, and Zorro began to suspect that his referring to Diegoīs status was carrying far more weight with the alcalde than he had expected.
After a few tense moments the alcalde nodded. But with a shrewish expression he asked: "And how do I know itīs not Diego de la Vega behind that mask?"
Zorro merely chuckled. "Really, alcalde, your suppositions never cease to amaze me."
He tried not to hold his breath as he watched him with invisible intensity. And to his relief the alcalde sighed with resignation. "Yes, that would be a bit too much to ask, I suppose. But it still does not change the fact that the seņorita is carrying an illegitimate child."
"Alcalde, that is the seņoritaīs private business. There is and never has been a governmental law forbidding women to get in the family way without being married, not even in the darkest era of the middle ages. If so, the jails would be full of expecting women, for you know as well as I do that this sin is quite widespread. But that is a matter for the church, not for the government. So you have no right whatsoever to keep seņorita Escalante in jail for this as long as padre Benitez doesnīt ask you to. And we both know that he would never ask such a thing."
But in the meantime, the alcalde had refound his self-confidence. "But still, that child is a perfect bait to catch you, seņor Zorro! I know what a softie you are... So either you turn yourself in, or that child will be dead the moment it is born!"
Zorroīs mouth tightened to a thin line as he squeezed the alcaldeīs neck even harder and pressed the sabre even tighter to his throat. "You blackhearted villain!" he hissed furiously. "Have you no honour at all? To kill an innocent child...! I warn you, alcalde! I will guard this child as if I were its guardian angel. And if any harm comes to the child, this angel will turn into an avenging one. And I will not rest until I find you and make you pay for every hair you harmed the child. And that, seņor, is an oath by God!"
He almost winced at his own words. Hadnīt he just given away a little too much of his personal feelings towards that child?
The alcalde chuckled. Rather constrained though, with Zorroīs hand squeezing his neck and Zorroīs sword pressing up against his throat. But it send the shivers down Zorroīs spine. Did he...?!
He had to call upon all his self-control to prevent a sigh of relief as he heard the alcalde say: "You can swear all you want, Zorro, but you donīt frighten me. I know you never kill anyone."
"Perhaps not." Zorro sounded very calm all of a sudden, but the alcalde couldnīt miss the dangerous undertone in his voice. "But there are other, more subtle ways to make people like you suffer. I might prefer those."
His tone was so grave, so full of threat, that the alcalde shuddered involuntarily. Hastily he looked into Zorroīs eyes. It took but an instant for him to realize that his archenemy was deadly serious in his threat, and he shrunk under the fire of hateful contempt that flashed from the dark eyes behind the mask.
"Allright, allright," he hurried to stammer.
"Now get the seņorita out of there, and donīt you ever bother her or her child again!" Zorro demanded. He took away his sword and pushed the alcalde towards the door to the jail. De Soto fumbled for the keys, and finally they stood in the humid darkness of the adjoining prison.
Victoria jumped up from the plank bed. "Zorro! I knew you would come!"
But Zorro raised his hand to warn her as De Soto started to unlock the cell-door. "Don Diego told me everything. I must say I had not expected you to throw yourself so drastically in his arms that youīd get yourself in trouble again right away."
Victoria winced at the hint of reproach and regret in his voice, but then she understood and quickly had to keep her smile in check. "I know," she confessed. "I was a bit hasty, wasnīt I?"
He nodded sadly. "You can say that again." He winked at her behind the alcaldeīs back, and she almost grinned back at him. In the meantime the alcalde had opened the cell-door and Victoria quickly stepped out.
"And now, alcalde," Zorro announced, "a taste from your own medicine. In you go, if you please!"
The alcalde was flabbergasted. "What?! But I...!?"
Zorro didnīt waste time: he grabbed him by his coat, pulled him up in front of the open doorway and with a simple punch on the jaw he knocked him out on the cellfloor. "There," he said satisfied. "Your chickens come home to roost again, Ignacio!"
He locked the cell-door and casted the keys in a dark corner. Then he turned to Victoria. "Are you allright?"
She nodded and cuddled up against his chest. "Thank you."
Quickly he kissed her hair, but then he untangled her arms and hurried: "Not here. Come on, weīve got to get out of here before Mendoza and his men return."
FEW MINUTES LATER they left Los Angeles on Toronadoīs back. The horse walked at a calm pace through the darkness. Victoria sat side-saddle in front of Zorro, and he held one arm around her waist to keep her balance.
"Why arenīt we going a bit faster? Or is it too heavy for Toronado?"
Zorro shook his head. "Toronado is just fine. But flying horsehooves might attract the lancersī attention; they are probably on their way back here. But more importantly: a bumpy ride may cause harm to your baby."
"It can?" Victoria was highly surprised. "You mean I canīt go anywhere till this baby is born?! Thatīs months away!"
He chuckled at her indignified tone. "Taking a carriage should be quite harmless, I suppose."
"Well, at least thatīs something," Victoria huffed, and Zorro grinned. Gently he squeezed her waist as he said: "Well, youīve got to realize that for the upcoming months youīre not just responsible for your own well-being, but for our childīs as well."
Victoria couldnīt help a smile. "Where are we going?" she asked next, for she couldnīt distinguish much in the moonless night.
"To the hacienda. I would like you to rest up for a few days. It canīt be very healthy, so exhausted as you were the other day."
"What?!" She sat up with a start. "I canīt! I have to get back to the tavern!"
Zorro sighed. "Victoria, the babyīs condition is similar to yours. Now Iīm sure Maria and Pilar can manage for a few days. I think you really need a rest."
Victoria sighed and leaned against his chest again. "Hm... Perhaps youīre right. I feel like I could sleep for days..." Then she thought of something else. "Canīt we go to your cave instead? Iīd love to see it again." She wrinkled her nose in thought. "It must be somewhere near or in the hacienda, right? For I donīt suppose that delicious dinner at the time just grew on the rocks. Or that you kept your motherīs ring in some muddy hole."
Zorro shook his head. "Women... Why are they so curious?"
"Please, Diego?" Victoria pleaded. "Please, no more secrets."
He looked at her sharply. "If you are going to call me Diego when Iīm wearing this suit, there soon wonīt be any secrets left to keep," he warned her gravely.
Victoria nodded with regret. "Iīm sorry, Zorro. Iīll keep a better check on my tongue." She looked up at him. "But can we please go to the cave? Please, Zorro?"
"Allright then," he gave in with a smile. "Your wish is my command, milady!"
Victoria chuckled. "It better be!"
Zorro slightly changed Toronadoīs direction, and not long after that he told Victoria to keep her head down. "The entrance is rather low when riding a horse," he told her.
She did as he told her, and felt him bending low over her, too. She heard the rustling of some branches and leaves, and then there was light.
"Thank goodness!" she heard someone exclaim, and when she looked up, she looked straight into Don Alejandroīs dark eyes.
"Are you allright, my dear?" he enquired anxiously.
Victoria nodded as he stretched out his arms to help her dismount from Toronadoīs high back. Smoothly she slid into his arms.
For a moment he held her at an armīs length, but then he hugged her tight to his chest. "Welcome to my house, my daughter."
Zorro dismounted, too, and left Toronado in Felipeīs care. He pulled off his hat and his mask, and looked at his father hugging Victoria.
"You know," Don Alejandro said in a mocking stern tone as he let go of her, "actually I think the two of you deserve a good spanking! But I think I may defer it until this new grandchild of mine will come into the world. By then, I might feel more like celebrating anyway!"
T WAS A few days later that Don Alejandro stomped into the tavern with a face predicting seven days of storm. His gloomy entrance was so different from his usual cheerful self, that everyone present looked up in wonder and surprise.
"Buenos dias, Don Alejandro!" Victoria chimed. But the cheerful note was clearly clouded by uneasiness and fear, and all she got in reply was a glare shooting daggers. She winced, and quickly disappeared through the curtain.
"Alejandro, whatīs the matter?" Don Sebastian got up from one of the side-tables.
Don Alejandro looked up and groaned. "Iīm ruined," was all he said. And then he sank down on the bench next to his friend and buried his face in his hands.
"Have a glass of wine," Don Sebastian offered to comfort him. He went over to the counter and got one from Pilar. Don Alejandro took a huge sip, and then he hid his face in his hands again, groaning like a wild animal in agony.
"Iīm ruined, Sebastian," he mumbled to his friend again in the end. "Ruined, thatīs what! You donīt know how fortunate you are, having four sons..."
Don Sebastian frowned in puzzlement. "Yes, I know how fortunate I am with my sons." And after a moment he carefully inquired: "Why, is something the matter with your Diego?"
Don Alejandro looked up with a start. "Something the matter, you ask!? Well, yes! Not only have I managed to raise the most loathsome coward in California, who rather hides his nose in one of his books than to take action, Iīve also managed to raise a..." His voice faltered. "... A c... a cad..."
Shame washed over him as Don Sebastian - and with him half the room - stared at him in astonishment.
"Iīm a failure as a father, Sebastian," Don Alejandro continued tormented. "I must be, otherwise my son - my only son could not have turned out like this: a coward, a good-for-nothing, a..." He nearly whispered now, but everyone heard even the last word: "A cad..." He sighed. "But how can I leave my hacienda to a man like that when the time has come? Oh, if only I had been able to father some more sons, I could simply have bestowed that responsibility on the next! But as it is, I only have Diego..." He moaned. "I have to face it, Sebastian: Iīm a failure. Iīve thoroughly spoiled my son. When he was a boy, I let him get away with just about anything. And now look at the result! Iīll have to make him marry the girl as soon as may be... And then Iīll just have to pretend that Iīm ever so happy to see my only son finally getting married and providing me with grandchildren and next heirs. Which means heīs getting away with things again. Oh, where is this going to stop!?"
By now the whole room was shamelessly listening in. And as Don Alejandro took another sip of his wine and then buried his face in his hands again, a sudden excited whisper filled the tavern.
"Don Diego?! Having taken advantage of a girl? Madre de Dios, who would have thought!"
"I always thought he was so extremely composed!"
"Apparently not. If he has dishonoured a girl..."
"I wonder who that might be..."
"Yeah... I never noticed he was much in to getting a lady. I even suspected he was... well... you know. Different."
"Not interested in ladies, you mean?"
"Yes. It would fit in with his unmasculine pursuits. After all, he doesnīt act like a man either. Always playing the piano, or the violin. Or paint, or write poetry."
"Well, that canīt be it. If he has raped a girl now, he must have a big untamed masculine beast hiding behind that serene mask of his."
Someone shivered. "Poor Don Alejandro. How hard this must be on him. To have such a beast for a son..."
"But I can scarce believe it! Are we really talking about the well-educated and overpolite De la Vega son?"
"You bet we are."
"But he seems such a gentleman! A shy one, but nonetheless a gentleman."
"Well, apparently he is everything but a gentleman. A yokel!"
"But the idea of him being īdifferentī is rubbish. Have you never seen how heīs always making cowīs eyes at the seņorita?"
"No, sheīs right. Iīve noticed it more than once, too."
"Heīs always staring at her, watching her every move. I believe itīs years ago I first noticed it. But he doesnīt do anything. He doesnīt court her or anything; he just stares at her."
"Well, you must admit that Zorro is a formidable rival. I can imagine that someone as shy and untrained as Don Diego would prefer not to get in a quarrel with Zorro over his lady."
"Yeah, sure... And instead he rapes her, you mean?"
A stunned silence followed that last ironic remark. People looked at each other in astonishment, and then, as one man, they turned their eyes to the curtain separating the kitchen from the public area. But Victoria was and remained in the kitchen. So they turned to stare at Don Alejandro, who - with his head still buried in his hands - obviously was not aware of what was going on around him. And then the people looked back at each other. Could it be possible that the seņorita had been put in the family way by Don Diego de la Vega instead of by Zorro?! No wonder she had refused to go into the matter earlier this week!
Exactly at this tense moment Don Diego chose to come in. And by a miracle (or perhaps she had been eavesdropping behind the curtain?) Victoria showed her face in the room, too.
Diego sensed the curious hostility in the room, and he looked around with obvious uneasiness. "Buenos dias," he ventured to no one in particular. But all he got in reply were reproving stares. So with a guilty look he turned towards Victoria and said in a half whisper in the tense hush: "Iīve spoken with padre Benitez. He will hear our confessions tonight, and after that we can discuss the ceremony with him. But I think weīd better be prepared for a whole month or more of praying īHail-Maryīsī. For he didnīt seem very pleased."
Victoria nodded. "That was to be expected." She looked past him, at the curious but glooming faces. Don Alejandro was glaring at them; his face one big expression of displeasure. And with a motion of her head she told Diego to follow her into the kitchen.
As soon as the curtain fell shut behind him and the voices on the other side were being used again in slaunder and despise, Victoria clasped Diego and nearly cried for laughing, smoldering the sound against his chest as best as she could. "Diego, he was marvellous! Your father should have been an actor!"
Diego grinned. "So I take it that our strategy worked?"
"Yes, it did. Absolutely perfect!" She wiped away a few laughing tears and looked up to him. "He didnīt even have to give hints about who the unfortunate lady might be; they easily figured it out by themselves. Are you really always staring at me? I remember sometimes, but..."
"Perhaps I am. Felipe says it, too, you know."
Victoria snuggled up against his strong chest. "Though I thought they were being pretty harsh on you out there now. Iīm glad you didnīt hear it."
Diego shrugged. "Donīt worry about that. Iīve gotten used to it."
At that moment the curtain was thrusted aside. Many people in the room had the chance of witnessing Don Diego and Victoria Escalante quickly letting go of each other at the sight of the revengeful father, before the curtain fell shut again.
Don Alejandroīs eyes flashed fire as he saw his son in the arms of his ladylove again. "Havenīt you disgraced me enough?! Out of here!" His booming voice was audible throughout the entire tavern; the simple curtain doing very little to confine the sound to the kitchen.
"Father, please...!" the tavernīs curious customers heard Don Diego plead.
"Out! I donīt want you being alone with that woman again for a second until you two are properly married! Heaven knows what else you might get yourself into!"
"Well, thereīs not much more he can get me into," Victoria pointed out matter-of-factly, and the entire tavern gasped. So it was true...! It was Don Diego who had gotten the seņorita in the family way, and now he was forced to marry her!
"I bet Zorro is not going to like that," someone commented.
But everyone was too interested in Don Alejandroīs next outburst to worry about Zorroīs possible heartache: "Oh, being impertinent, too, huh? Well, if youīre becoming a De la Vega, my girl, I should recommend you learn some manners! And now: out, Diego! And donīt let me see you two alone again!"
Diego winked at Victoria before he let his father push him out the back door, and Victoria nearly giggled. And as the door slammed shut behind them, she heard the voices inside suddenly being raised again. And outside the door she heard a faint snickering. Diego?
But it was Don Alejandro, trying to suppress a quiet fit of laughter. "You know what, Diego? I believe I actually enjoy acting!"
EVERTHELESS, Zorroīs bold statement to the alcalde that Victoria and Diego should be married within a month appeared to be a little too optimistic. First of all there was lots and lots of paperwork to see to. By marrying the taverness, Diego would automatically gain property of the tavern. But he knew too well how much Victoria loved her work there, as well as being aware of her sense of business so far superior to his own. So he had a contract drawn up which in name indeed - following the law - would make him the owner of the tavern upon his marriage, but ensuring the role as managing director upon Victoria herself, making her responsible for all day-to-day decisions concerning the establishment. Neither of them could predict how Victoria would feel about working in the tavern when she would have her own family. But this way, at least she would have the opportunity if indeed she wanted to.
Apart from that, an in Victoriaīs eyes incredible sum was settled upon her in the case of Diegoīs death. "Are you trying to get me to kill you or something?" she teased him as she had gotten over most of her awe.
Something that puzzled her was the matter of her private quarters. Three beautiful rooms were to be at her disposal: a bedroom, a sitting-room and a bathroom. She was free to furnish them any way she wished, without having to worry about the expense. That was a state of mind to which she was not accustomed; she had always had to compromise between beauty and economics, and as a result, the taste she had developed that way was rather modest. It all made her awkwardly aware of just how rich the family was that she was marrying into.
Still, that was not what puzzled her the most. For why on earth should she and Diego each have their own bedroom after they would be married?! Wouldnīt that defeat the whole object of marriage?
Diego gave her a puzzled look when she brought up the subject with him. "I donīt know," he answered pensively. "My mother and father always had separate bedrooms. I believe it is customary in our circles. I just assumed..."
"Well, my parents had only one bedroom. And only one bed, too," Victoria told him.
"Only one bed?!"
"Well, a big bed. But it seems kind of weird to me not to spend your nights together when you love each other."
A mischievous twinkle crept into Diegoīs eyes. "Well, of course I canīt tell you for sure whether my parents indeed slept each in his or her own room. I never checked. You might want to ask my father about that."
Victoria blushed. "Donīt be silly..."
Diego chuckled. "But I must say I find your idea of sharing one big bed very tempting. Iīd love to hold you in my arms every night when I fall asleep, and wake up, only to find that Iīm still holding you. Perhaps itīs time to start a new custom then, eh?"
So to Don Alejandroīs surprise, the bed Victoria got for her room was uncommonly wide.
"Wonīt you get lost on such a wide stretched plain?" he wondered with his eyebrows raised.
But Victoria reassured him happily: "Oh no. Not when Iīll have Diego with me. This is what they call a double bed."
"Well, what do you know..." Don Alejandro muttered. "Before we know it, we might have triple beds and quadruple beds that fill the room from one wall to another!"
NOTHER matter that Diego wanted to settle was Felipeīs status. Officially, Felipe was nothing but a servant, and a very low one, too: as a foundling, he didnīt even have a last name. When Diego had found him, the little boy had been unable to tell them his name, and Diego himself had decided to call him Felipe for the time-being. Later on, when they had learned to communicate even about more abstract matters, Diego had asked him if he remembered his real name. The boy had only become very distressed, and even on later occasions, Felipe had insisted that he did not recall his former name at all. His name was Felipe, and that was all there was to it.
From the very beginning, Diego had felt a kind of paternal love and responsibility for the lost boy. He still felt guilty about neglecting, nay, almost forgetting him during his years in Madrid. But since then, their bond had only strengthened as Felipe became Zorroīs helper and consequently Diegoīs closest confidant. Their relationship was one of friendship and complete trust, as well as a love similar to the love between a father and his son, he believed. And even though they were hardly more than twelve, thirteen years apart - no one knew exactly how old Felipe was - Diego was quite sure that he could not love a child of his own flesh and blood more than he loved his protégé Felipe. And as his special protégé, he and Don Alejandro had seen to it that the boy - so eager to learn - had received a schooling and education far above the general standards for servants. Inspite of his status as a servant, when it came to schooling Felipe had been educated almost as a caballero.
Years ago, when he had his will drawn up, Diego had already made Felipe his main benificiary. Perhaps the time had come to make his position in the De la Vega family clear for all the world to see. That is: if Felipe wanted so himself.
Fortunately, when he sounded Victoria on the matter, it appeared she welcomed the idea of Diego and herself adopting Felipe. "I know how fond you two are of each other," she said. "Felipe is so dear, so smart..." She chuckled. "And handsome and intelligent, too! Yes, Diego, I will be honoured if he will have me for his mother. And I can only hope that our own child will grow up to be just like him."
Diego simply beamed with pride, but he added cautiously: "But do you realize that if I adopt him as my son, he will in time automatically become heir to the whole of the De la Vega estate? Inspite of any sons you and I will have together? We can settle a large sum on our īownī children of course, but they will not inherit the hacienda. What do you think about that?"
Victoria merely shrugged. "With you being as rich as you are, Iīm sure they will always be well provided for. With or without the hacienda. But more importantly: Felipe is a sensible, intelligent young man, with his heart in the right place. I donīt know much about running a hacienda, but I am quite sure that Felipe would be a very good master to serve. Simply because he has been a servant himself for ten years. He will see to the needs of the weak, and as Zorroīs assistant he must have developed a good sense of justice, too. Yes, I think he will make a perfect manager of the hacienda one day."
This time Diego beamed with gratitude, and he went off to find Felipe. He found the young man in the library, engrossed in one of his lawbooks.
"Felipe, can I have a word with you, please?"
Felipe looked up and made an inviting gesture as Diego sat down on the other side of the chess-board.
Diego cleared his throat. "Felipe..." he started rather hesitantly. "Felipe, you know that I love you very much, donīt you? Like you were my younger brother. Or my son."
Felipe nodded, but kept his eyes fixed on Diego without signing anything in return. It was as if he could sense the magnitude of the moment in the air.
Diego continued slowly: "What do you say about making that bond official? Me adopting you as my eldest son?"
Felipe sat motionless; he could scarcely believe his ears. Sometimes, in very daring wild dreams, he had contemplated on how it would be one day: Diego adopting him as a son. Having a father again. And in Don Alejandro a grandfather. A family. But he hadnīt dared to believe in those dreams. Too far-fetched. Unreal. And here...
Diego watched him expectantly, and suddenly Felipe jumped up and embraced his patron. And Diego hugged him back. No words were necessary. The mutual hug - an expression of affection they hardly ever used - said all there was to say.
When they finally let go of one another they both had to blink away some tears.
"I love you, father," Felipe signed timidly.
"I love you, too, son." Diegoīs face had an emotional smile.
They sat quiet for a while, pondering about their future.
"How soon can this be organized?" Felipe wanted to know. "For I suppose some papers will have to be drawn up and signed."
Diego nodded in acknowledgement. "The magistrate is coming by here one of these days to give his official approval of the provisions concerning Victoria. We could take up your adoption right away then."
A slight grin appeared on Felipeīs face. "Will Victoria be my mother then?"
Diego smiled. "A bit odd, isnīt it? She is less than ten years older than you are..."
Felipe shrugged. "I donīt mind. I would like to have her for a mother. She is really nice." He hesitated for an instant before adding: "Actually I believe I was a little jealous... You marrying Victoria, and then this new baby... I was afraid that they would take my place in your heart..." He shrugged apologetically. "A childish thought, I know, but... You know..."
Diego leaned forward and took hold of his shoulder. "Yes. I understand. But you need never worry, Felipe. Even if Iīd get twenty more children, that wonīt change my love for you."
Felipeīs eyes popped wide. "Twenty children?! What does Victoria say about that?"
Diego grinned. "Nothing. I havenīt asked her. But I think I would really like to have a whole bunch of children. Growing up as an only child has its advantages, but I would have liked to have a few brothers and sisters to play with. Instead of always having to find friends and playmates elsewhere. Though twenty may be a little exaggerated, youīre right."
Felipe in his turn let out an exaggerated sigh of relief. But he sobered immediately as another question came to his mind: "What about my hearing?"
Diego watched him with understanding. "Would you like people to know you can hear?" he asked quietly.
Felipe hesitated, but nodded.
Diego leaned forward and took the young manīs hand in his. "Has it been bothering you to keep it a secret?"
Felipe sighed. "Recently, yes. I would like to get on with my life. Especially now that I see you and Victoria making your dreams come true, so would I like to let people know the real me, too. I think that would be easier if my only handicap was to be that I have trouble speaking."
Diego nodded. "I am sure you are right. In a way, your life has been as trapped by Zorro as mine."
"Oh, but I donīt regret it!" Felipe hurried to explain. "It was for a good cause!"
Diego sighed. "Yes, I know. And I think you are right. As much as Victoria and I by now feel we deserve to get on with our lives, that goes for you, too, of course. So what do you say we announce that youīve regained your hearing together with the official announcement of you becoming a member of the De la Vega family?"
Felipe gave him a sheepish grin. "You mean Iīm really going to be called Felipe de la Vega?"
"Don Felipe de la Vega," Diego corrected him with a broad smile as he got up. "And if anyone is worthy of that title, itīs you, my friend!"
Felipe shook his head in disbelief.
"Oh yes, you are!" Diego chuckled. "Youīd better get used to it, son! Oh, and by the way: you might want to think about a few extra middle names to add. Never in the entire history of the De la Vega family has there ever been a member with only one first name. And we wouldnīt want you to be the exception."
Felipe shook his head. "I only want one more name, and that is yours," he told Diego.
"Mine?" Diego asked surprised.
Felipe nodded. "All that I have, all that I am... I have only you to thank for that. Without you, I would be nothing; I would probably be dead. You brought me here, you gave me a home, a future... and now even a family. I can never thank you enough for that. So if I may choose, I would like to be called Felipe Diego de la Vega. In your honour."
They looked at each other in silence. And in the end, Diego said quietly: "Thank you, my son."
HE WEDDING-DAY approached with rapid strides. Victoriaīs eldest brother, captain Francisco Escalante, arrived by ship from Colombia, with alarming tales about the instable situation in the southern colonies. Victoria was thrilled to see him again after some five years, though Francisco appeared to be far from thrilled about her present situation. He even talked about challenging his childhood companion Don Diego to a duel for dishonouring his sister.
"You donīt!" Victoria told him indignantly. "Diego is no match for you. And besides, what gives you the right to just come here after all these years and start playing big brother the moment you set foot in Los Angeles again? Donīt you worry about me, I can take care of myself. I can very well do without this misplaced fraternal protection, thank you very much!"
"Of course. Thatīs why you got yourself in the family way," Francisco muttered.
Victoria put her hands on her hips, and her eyes flashed fire as she retorted: "Yes, thatīs why I got myself in the family way. Because I love Diego and he loves me. So I donīt need your interference there, for I am perfectly happy about marrying him!"
Francisco retreated. There was nothing he could do about the matter anyway. And Victoria would have very little use of a dead groom. So he hurried to reassure his fuming sister that she certainly had made a very desirable match.
"Well, keep that in mind then!" she huffed as she turned on her heel.
T WAS EARLY August, the night before the wedding. Don Alejandro wandered through the hacienda in search of his son. He found him pondering in the library.
"All ready for tomorrow, son?"
The sudden sound of his fatherīs voice startled Diego from his reverie. "What did you say, father?"
Don Alejandro smiled. "I asked if you were ready for the big day tomorrow."
Diego nodded. "I think so."
His father sank down on one of the other chairs. His thoughts were miles, or rather years away. "I still remember the day I married your mother. As if it were yesterday. Iīd wish she could be here now, with her son getting married..."
His voice trailed off, but then he turned to look at Diego again. "Your mother and I were very happy together, Diego. I sincerely hope for you and Victoria to find that same happiness in your married life. And," he added with a sad smile, "that it may last quite a bit longer."
Diego smiled timidly. "Thank you, father. I hope so, too," he simply said.
They sat in silence for a few minutes before Don Alejandro inquired: "Have you managed to make a decision about Zorro?" The matter had not been discussed again after that night. But Don Alejandro could not help but have noticed that Zorroīs appearances in town had been less frequent these past weeks.
Diego shook his head. "Personally, I think Zorro should retire," he told his father. "Believe it or not, father, but Zorro is scared to go out nowadays. Scared to put his life at risk: to get a bullet through his heart, or the cold steel of a sword. I have to call upon all my self-control now in order not to start back when a rifle is pointed at me. Or when some bandit draws his knife. As soon as the malevolent will take notice of my being frightened to encounter them, discovering that the invincible Zorro is human... Even the lancers are likely to lose all the fearful respect they have for him as soon as they find out. With all the fatal consequences for me. Lately, I feel so utterly relieved every time I make it back to the cave unharmed... It is strange, for even though I have been injured quite a few times before, it never robbed me of that feeling of... well, being invincible. Immortal even. And now... But how can I stand aside and let Zorro retire with the alcalde still terrorizing the people?"
Don Alejandro just nodded. He didnīt have a ready-made solution to Zorroīs problem either.
HE CHURCH was absotely packed. All of Los Angeles had gathered to witness what was pronounced to be the wedding of the year. Two public figures, the taverness Victoria Escalante and Don Diego de la Vega, the unassuming editor of The Guardian and only son and heir to one of the most respected and influential families in the territory were to be joined in matrimony today. The fact that the wedding had had a piquant prelude seemed to have raised rather than diminished the peopleīs interest. That the shy and calm Don Diego could be in love with the fiery taverness was interesting enough in itself, although stranger alliances had been established in the past. But that this quiet, unassuming young Don had actually raped the seņorita and got her in the family way, now that was something to talk about! And of course, people were eager to find out if seņorita Escalanteīs declarations about Zorro having set her free to be able to get on with her life were really true. Or would Zorro show up at her wedding again, just as he did the moment she jilted Juan Ortiz right here at the altar?
Diego sat in the first pew, with his father and Felipe at either side. They were all dressed in black caballero costumes; Diego because he had to according to the church-law for having put his wife-to-be in the family way before they were married, and Felipe and Don Alejandro because they didnīt want to contrast too much with the actual celebrator of the day.
It was the first time Felipe showed his face in town dressed according to his new station in life, and he could not escape to notice the sudden glances of admiration from the female side of the congregation. He felt great in these new clothes. Grand. But even though the material was so much softer than what he was used to, he felt a little uncomfortable in them as well. Having worn a simple shirt, trousers and sandals all his life, he felt a little overdressed in his white ruffled shirt and the embroidered caballero-jacket. And restricted in his movements. He fidgeted a little at his neck-tie. It looked good, he had seen in the mirror. But he found it rather warm to have his clothes reaching all the way up to his neck. Perhaps dressing for comfort wasnīt so bad after all?
Diego looked pale. He was still worried about possible reprisals from the alcalde. What if De Soto had just pretended to believe the rumours about Diego having raped Victoria? What if heīd march in here as soon as theyīd exchanged vows and have them both hanged? He was sure he couldnīt possibly watch Victoria being hanged; it would be a punishment far more devastating to see her being hanged than being hanged himself. Or what if someone were to notice some similarity between Zorro and him, now that Diego was obliged to dress in black? What if...?
He clutched his sweaty hands. Perhaps they should have run off to the United States anyway, and got married there instead... Perhaps...
A sudden hush fell over the overcrowded room. Even in the aisles people were standing side by side; only the center aisle was left open for captain Escalante to lead his sister to the altar.
The organ started playing, and Don Alejandro nudged his son to get up and meet his bride. And there she was... All in black, but so beaming with happiness and felicity that the bright colours of her brotherīs military uniform seemed to fade away in comparison. Every eye in the room was upon the beautiful bride, slowly walking down the aisle. But the bride herself had eyes for one man only: a man rooted to the spot at the sight of his chosen companion for life.
Francisco handed Victoriaīs hand to him, but he needed another prod from his father to remember that he was supposed to take her hand and turn towards the padre. And so, in the presence of practically the entire pueblo de Los Angeles, Diego and Victoria joined hands.
Padre Benitez felt obliged to add a few warning lines about the sin the new couple had committed, but the larger part of his sermon consisted of a panegyric on the true love between man and wife. He knew how much these two loved one another, and he had no doubt whatsoever as to their marital felicity. Both Diego and Victoria were confident in plighting their troth to each other; there was not even the slightest hint of hesitation in their voices. It caused many a lady in the room to take out a handkerchief, and even Don Alejandro had to blink furiously. And so it was with a joyful heart that padre Benitez gave the young couple Godīs holy blessing.
"I now pronounce you husband and wife," he ended affectionately as Diego had helped Victoria up from the kneeling pad. "And you may kiss the bride."
But all Diego did was taking Victoriaīs other hand in his as well and gaze at her. Victoria. His Victoria now... His wife! He felt like jubilating... and crying at the same time, of utter relief. After all those years of hardship, of frustration, of despair...
Victoria beamed back at him, in expectation of his kiss. She felt happier than she ever had been.
An expectant silence filled the room as everyone breathlessly awaited the magical moment of every wedding-ceremony. But the two in front of the altar were so engrossed in just looking at each other that they seemed to have totally forgotten where they were. But in the end, Victoria raised her eyebrows at him, and it was she who broke the silence. "If you donīt, I will," she told Diego as she put her arms around his neck. And once he was drawn into her tender kiss, he felt he would never want to let her go again. He was home. He had finally come home.
Behind them, padre Benitez watched them with a knowing smile. He knew them both so well; he knew they would do anything to make the other happy. He knew their tempers would give rise to lots of fiery fights. But he also knew of the many storms their love had endured and survived already, before this day. He knew for sure now what he had vaguely suspected for years: thanks to Diegoīs confession a few weeks ago, he knew how long he and Victoria had loved each other, with no chance of confirming their love in marriage. They may have made a horrible mistake in getting Victoria in the family way prematurely, but as Victoria had said: it seemed to be the only way out of the trap their love had placed them in. Not that it altered anything about the facts, but their sin was understandable. And at least this time God had united two people who seemed destined for each other, and loved one another with all their heart. When compared to that other shotgun-wedding the week before, with Pablo Gonzalez and young Maria de la Cruz... They had hardly been willing to hold each otherīs hand! He sighed, and wondered - not for the first time - if God really meant that two people who didnīt even like each other should be forced to join in matrimony, no matter what they had done. Well, at least he didnīt have to worry about that in the case of Don Diego and Victoria...
Don Alejandro was the first one to embrace his son and daughter-in-law when they finally let go of each other. Francisco and Felipe followed suit, and as Diego let go of the latter, he raised his voice to be heard over the happy half-whispers of the crowd. "Seņoras y seņores, if I may have your attention for a moment?"
Everybody hushed and looked at the newly wed caballero. One arm he held around his bride, the other lay around Felipeīs shoulders.
"Now that practically the whole town is gathered here," Diego continued, "I would like you all to know that I... that my wife and I have recently adopted Felipe as our first born son. You may also be happy to know that he has regained his hearing a while back. So there is no reason why you should not take the trouble to get to know our son, Don Felipe de la Vega. You will soon find that it takes but a little patience and good will to understand his way of communicating with us."
People started cheering, and someone cried: "Long live Don Felipe!" Which made Felipe grin awkwardly. And when finally the whole crowd bustled outside in the sunlight of the plaza, Felipe got about as many congratulations as the newly weds.
T WAS EARLY in the evening now, and the temperature was getting quite pleasant. On the tavernīs veranda there was a huge buffet. Maria and Pilar had slaved for days over the many delicious dishes, and many women in the pueblo had contributed to the food as well. After all, if this was to be the wedding of the year, they could do with a good party. Sergeant Mendoza went around licking his lips, and of course he couldnīt resist trying a little bite here and there.
A group of musicians had taken its position on the balcony of the tavern, and it didnīt take long for the entire plaza to be filled with swirling couples, dancing to their heartīs content at the inciting rhythm of the Spanish music.
The new Don Felipe soon found himself surrounded by eligible young ladies aged ten up to some thirty years old, admiring his every feature. His fine clothes were praised excessively, and especially his beautiful big brown eyes caught their attention. Comparisons were made with the eyes of soft cuddly animals like rabbits, deer and young brown bears, and since his way of speaking did not imply sounds, they simply chattered and chattered away over him themselves. And of course they all declared his clever way of speaking with his hands to be extremely cute, and not at all hard to understand.
Although he felt flattered by all this attention, Felipe tried hard to keep a clear head. He figured that those who had not noticed those īterribly handsome and so very attractiveī features of his while he had been dressed in ordinary clothes, would most probably be more enticed by his new status as the next De la Vega heir than by himself. He had heard enough stories from Diego - about young ladies setting their caps for him, just because of him being the proclaimed catch of the territory - to be disgusted by such practices. If he were to marry one day (and that was probably years away) he wanted to marry for love. Like Diego and Victoria had. Instead of falling prey to some female fortune-hunter.
But all the same, he couldnīt deny that it was nice to be at the center of attention all of a sudden. With lots of people - and not just eager young ladies - introducing himself to him. As if he didnīt know every man, woman and child in the entire pueblo by name: he had been living among them for over ten years. And also: whenever he wanted to dance, he could just take his pick among a whole bunch of swooning young ladies, and they all felt ever so honoured to dance with him. Being a De la Vega sure did have its advantages...
Don Alejandro took a few turns around the dancefloor, too. But mostly he was talking to his friends, beaming with love and pride of his son, his new daughter, and his adopted grandson, and assuring everyone that he was ever so happy about Diego finally providing him with the grandchild he had always longed for. And he couldnīt help chuckling whenever he looked in Felipeīs direction, always in the center of a group of young ladies. Why, the lad probably felt like the proverbial caterpillar having turned into a beautiful butterfly!
When the people had left the church, the alcalde had been lying in an ambush in order to catch Zorro - just in case he should show up at Victoriaīs wedding again. But as the music started playing and dancing couples started to fill the plaza, and no appearance from Zorro seemed to occur, the temptation to participate in the festivities became too much for the alcalde. So he called off his soldiers, and he, too, started to try his hand at courting the ladies in the plaza. He asked all the pretty ones to dance with him, and even though no one liked to be romanced by someone like the alcalde, very very few had the guts to refuse him his dance. Consequently, De Soto felt the party was a great success for him.
Sergeant Mendoza however spent most of his time at the tavernīs veranda, munching in all the delicious food he could lay his hands on. Maria tried to distract him by asking him to dance with her, but no matter how pleasantly such a dance would pass, as soon as it was over he would always return to the tempting buffet loaded with food. So in the end Maria gave up and let him have his way.
Victoria did one dance with Don Alejandro, and one with her brother. The rest of the time she simply confiscated her Diego, and would not share him with anyone else. And Diego didnīt mind of course. The only one he wished to dance with was Victoria. He just loved to have her in his arms, to feel her against his chest when they danced. And to feel the beginning of her baby-belly. Her pregnancy had started to show lately, and Victoria had been quite worried for her dress. Fortunately, the folds magically disguised the curve of her belly, and the high waist of the dress did the rest. But there was no way he could escape feeling that beautiful little belly when he had her in his arms. Again and again it gave him a jolt of happiness. Not only had he finally married the woman of his dreams; soon he would be a father, too! But for now they happily whirled across the plaza together, with everyone giving them encouraging smiles and nods as they passed by. No matter how it had started, Don Diego de la Vega and his Doņa Victoria were now generally proclaimed to be the happiest couple in all of California; nay, in the Spanish empire!
"I love you, Victoria," Diego panted as they took a break from the dancefloor to catch their breath after a few particularly inciting dances. He leaned against the wall of the cuartel and drew her in his arms again. "I love you so very very much..."
The sound of many galloping horsehooves arose them from their kiss.
"Now what..." Victoria muttered annoyed as they saw a company of foreign soldiers carefully searching its way through the festivities to the center of the plaza. She moved closer to be able to hear what this was all about. There wasnīt going to be a war now, was there? Diego followed her - just as curious, as well as reluctant to even let his new wife out of his sight.
The musicians had suddenly broken off their tune, and everyone in the plaza turned to look at the unfamiliar uniform of the soldiers. An uneasy hush fell over the plaza as the soldiersī leader - a colonel - took out a parchment role from his saddlebag.
"Citizens of Los Angeles!" he boomed over the pueblo. "Let it be known that earlier this year, king Ferdinand of Spain has sold the Californian territories to the new independent state of Mexico. Therefore, you may all regard yourselves as Mexican citizens from now on. All private landownership will be respected, and all civilians are free to either stay, or sell their land and leave the territory. All that is required is for the local Spanish authority to leave the Mexican territory within 48 hours. All other Spanish officials, officers and soldiers are given the choice of either pledging their allegiance to Mexico, or leaving the territory with their alcalde."
For a moment there was nothing but stunned silence as people digested this news. Victoria frowned and muttered to Diego: "What kind of a king is that, to simply sell us to another country!?"
Diego only shrugged in reply. His mind was busy trying to oversee the consequences of this change. Did this mean a revolution? A lot would depend on how the people would take this news. He had no idea if this would turn out to be a change for the better or for the worse, but he hoped sincerely that at least it would not turn into a massacre. If necessary, he would have to try and convince the people to at least give their new Mexican government a chance. For if the king really had sold California to Mexico, then there was nothing the people could change about that.
Then the alcalde stepped forward. "Iīm sorry, seņor, but I donīt believe you," he said, sternly looking up at the colonel up on his horse. "Spain may be many, many miles away, but donīt you think the king would let us know himself if he intended to sell our pueblo and all of our territory to some petty new state?"
The colonelīs face hardened. "Seņor, itīs not Mexicoīs fault that the king of Spain has not informed you. But to assure you of the truth: here is the royal deed, signed by the king himself, stating that all of Spanish California will be under Mexican rule from now on."
The alcalde grabbed the parchment out of the colonelīs hand and examined it under the tense expectation of the people of Los Angeles. And he couldnīt help it: his eyes widened as he became aware of its authenticity and of the devastating content of the document. He held it up to the light to check the watermark. And to win time. He had always dreamt about going back to Madrid. But not like this, not by being ordered by some treacherous upstart! "Who are you, anyway?" he demanded as he casually tried to embezzle the incriminating document.
It took but a short nod from the colonel to have two of the Mexican soldiers appear next to the alcalde and retrieving the document from him. They returned it to their leader, and reassumed their places. "I, seņor," the colonel said coldly, "am colonel Vieira, official emissary from the independent Mexican government. I am sorry to disappoint you, but the king of Spain himself has decided to take his hands off California. And since you are his representative here if I am not mistaken, you will have to leave the territory. You may go back to Spain or anywhere you wish. Either by your own free will or with force. But I would recommend that you decide for yourself where you want to go. For I have been told that making a sea-voyage in a small cell is not so pleasant."
The alcalde fumed, and a few people chuckled. But then Don Alejandro stepped forward, too. "Then how does the Mexican government intend to govern this pueblo, colonel? Are your men to stay here?"
The colonel - known in his country to be an excellent judge of character - looked at him. And what he saw did not displease him: an elder, leading caballero, who clearly had the good of the people at heart. And he smiled. An honest smile, which Don Alejandro could not mistake either. "No, seņor. My men and I have to go on to the other pueblos to announce the take-over. But we will appoint a local temporary alcalde for the time-being until more definite arrangements will be made."
Don Alejandro nodded. As a confirmed royalist, faithful to his king and his country, he did not find it easy to be happy with this sudden change of government. His heart ached to know that he was now practically a stranger in his own country, and he wondered if he would be allowed to regard himself as a Spanish citizen when the territory was governed by Mexico. To become a Mexican citizen out of his own free will was not really an option with the old nobleman. But leaving the territory, the land he had devoted his life to, was not particularly tempting either, and he decided quietly for himself that for once he would wait and see how things were to turn out. Before making such far-stretching decisions.
In the meantime colonel Vieira called out: "Sergeant Jaime Mendoza!"
"Sė, colonel!" Mendoza stumbled forward through the crowd, and finally stood at attention at the alcaldeīs side.
"Sergeant, you are from Mexico if I have been well informed. Is that not so?" the colonel inquired. He didnīt sound at all unfriendly, and Mendoza hurried to confirm the information: "Sė, colonel. I was born and grew up on a farm near Guadalajara."
The colonel nodded. "Sergeant Mendoza, are you willing to serve your own country from now on, and pledge your allegiance to Mexico instead?"
People gasped. It was true: everybody knew that Mendozaīs roots lay in Mexico!
Mendoza himself swallowed and looked around nervously. Every man and woman in the plaza was looking at him, waiting for him to answer. He had the impression that his answer would determine the lives of all his fellow Angelinos. But what was he to choose? Should he obey the fuming ex-alcalde next to him and be forced to leave California with him? Or should he give in to the apparently friendly colonel in front of him, even though he didnīt have a clue about what the Mexican government was planning to do with California?
"Desertion is treason, sergeant!" De Soto hissed at him. "If you dare to go over to that so-called Mexican army, then I shall personally see to it that you will hang!"
Mendoza swallowed with difficulty, but Don Alejandro had heard the alcaldeīs words, too, and his voice rang out over the plaza: "Alcalde, let the sergeant make up his own mind, will you! With the way things are now, you have no commanding power over him!"
De Soto drew himself up to his full height in an attempt to look down on Don Alejandro. "I will have you know that nobody but I am his commanding officer, and..."
"Not in Mexican California!" the colonel retorted. But then he turned to Mendoza again. "Well, sergeant?" he asked in a far friendlier tone.
Mendoza swallowed again. "I will be happy to serve my own country, colonel," he struggled out.
The alcalde exploded. "You swine! You are serving in the army of the royal Spanish empire! You canīt just betray your king and join the enemy!"
Mendoza backed off a little, but quickly two of the Mexican soldiers appeared at the alcaldeīs side to prevent him from slaughtering his former sergeant. "I am truly sorry, alcalde," Mendoza explained apologetically. "But it is true that I feel much more connected to my homeland Mexico than to Spain. Iīve never even been to Spain!"
Colonel Vieira gave him a nod of approval. "Exactly, sergeant. Thatīs why Mexico has declared its independence. And since you are the highest in rank in the Los Angeles garrison, and have declared your loyalty to Mexico, until further notice you will serve as temporary alcalde of this pueblo. Consider yourself sworn in."
Mendozaīs jaw dropped. "Me? Alcalde of Los Angeles?!"
Don Alejandro smiled, and slapped him on the back. "Well, it seems like you are alcalde again once more, sergeant!"
All of a sudden some of the people near him started cheering. "Long live alcalde Mendoza!! Long live alcalde Mendoza!!" No one could oversee the consequences of their new nationality. But everyone knew that sergeant Mendoza - even though he may not be the cleverest of men - had a good heart, and would lead the pueblo accordingly.
"No way! No way!" De Soto raged. "I am the alcalde of this pueblo! And you can not take that from me! My men, and the people of Los Angeles, they respect me!"
Colonel Vieira chuckled as he noticed more and more people cheering along for alcalde Mendoza. "You really think so, seņor?"
"Lancers!" De Soto bellowed. "Get your rifles and drive these impostors out of town! And put that traitor Mendoza in irons before he escapes!"
Mendoza winced. There was some movement in the crowd; the lancers had been participating at the party, too, and consequently they were scattered all over the place.
Diegoīs jaw tightened. This was going the wrong way. He looked for a way to stop the lancers from getting to the cuartel to get their rifles. But when he turned back to the crowd to assess the situation, all momentary movement had disappeared. Some of the lancers were lurking in the back. Others kept low in the middle of the crowd. And some people were grinning smugly, having tackled a lonesome obedient lancer running to get his gun.
Colonel Vieira grinned, too. "Well, thatīs settled then. It seems most of your īmenī have wisely decided to follow the sergeantīs example."
The people in the plaza laughed. They laughed at him, Ignacio De Soto! And they started cheering again for Mendoza, as to humiliate De Soto even more. But he was trapped, with a Mexican soldier on either side, and with all his own lancers having deserted him.
Sergeant Mendoza approached the colonel on his horse and asked: "Colonel, as alcalde I have the possibility of denouncing the bounty on a local criminalīs head and pardon him, havenīt I?"
Colonel Vieira nodded. "You have indeed, sergeant."
Mendozaīs face shone. He climbed up on the fountain and waved his arms for attention. He started a few "Seņores y seņoras, please!" But it wasnīt until the colonel gave a short whistle on his fingers that the cheering people quieted down enough for their new alcalde to make himself heard for his first speech.
Sergeant Mendoza cleared his throat. "Seņores y seņoras!" He swallowed at the sight of all those faces expectantly looking up to him. But he had something important to say, so he gathered his courage and continued: "As your alcalde, I hereby declare that our friend Zorro is granted a general pardon. And there is no more bounty on his head!"
Now the cheering was definitely deafening, and only Ignacio de Soto happened to take notice of an overjoyed former seņorita Escalante jumping into Diegoīs arms. And his furious reproof of Mendozaīs first act as alcalde was cut short abruptly at the sight: "It canīt be... No...!"
However, Victoria jumping at him nearly made Diego lose his balance. He felt like he was hovering over the side of a ravine, with his legs nearly giving way under him. Was this the end? Could it be true?! Or was he dreaming? A general pardon for Zorro?!?
He noticed his father looking at him, his face showing a mixture of pride and relief. But sergeant Mendoza was waving for attention again, and when he finally got it, he asked colonel Vieira: "Colonel, if you would be so kind as to pass on Zorroīs pardon to the other pueblos when you are telling them about California becoming Mexican and stuff?"
The colonel nodded. "I certainly will, sergeant. From what Iīve heard about this Zorro-fellow, he should not be branded as a criminal. At least not according to Mexican standards." And he wrote down something at the bottom of the parchment with the declaration he had read out aloud before.
Mendoza beamed. "Good. And now that there is no more threat of being shot or hanged or something like that, will Zorro please come forward, so that weīll finally know to whom we owe so much?"
Everybody in the plaza looked around expectantly. Where would their masked hero show up? All of Los Angeles was gathered here tonight on accord of the now nearly forgotten wedding-of-the-year, so it was more than likely that their hero was right here under their noses, disguised as himself.
Diego felt that time stood still. He noticed the pride with which Felipe looked at him, his faithful eyes begging him to come forward. He noticed his beaming father, telling him with a fierce nod that he should come and claim the respect and the gratitude he so thoroughly deserved. He noticed padre Benitez smiling at him from the back of the crowd. He felt Victoriaīs warm, loving eyes upon him, urging him to show his real self and reveal his secret to everyone. And alarmingly enough, he was aware of De Soto staring at him, too, in a puzzled but threatening frown. Did he suspect...?
He shivered and bit his lip. And fixed his eyes on the ground. Could he? Was he really ready for this? His mind raced, his heart galloped through his chest. With sudden expectation, with disbelief, with fear... Living a secret double life had become so much a part of him; he wasnīt sure whether he was able to tear his life apart and share that secret with the whole town...
But as he noticed how eagerly the people were looking for their hero - the very people he had sworn to protect - he found he could not leave them in the dark. Not anymore. And he swallowed. Hard. And then he slowly started to walk from the back of the crowd towards the fountain in the center of the plaza. Victoria, Felipe, his father, they all beamed as they finally watched him come forward. At first, he had to gently push his way through the crowd, but then a path started to clear for him, as if he were crossing the Red Sea. He hardly dared to look in anybodyīs face, but he felt their awe, and their respectful hush rang in his ears. A part of him still wanted to turn away and run. But he couldnīt. Not anymore. The people knew. It was over.
Mendoza, too, stepped down from the fountain in astonishment when he noticed just who was coming forward through the crowd. And when Diego finally stood in front of him, he swallowed hard and stammered: "D...D... Don D... Diego?! You?!?"
Diego nodded. He couldnīt speak. īThis must be what life is like for Felipe,ī was the thought that suddenly crossed his mind. So much to say, and not being able to utter a single word...
"I should have known!" came a sudden grunt from De Soto, and everyone turned to him. "I had him in my clutches and he fooled me...! How could I have missed it?!"
No one took the bait to ridicule the alcalde, for at that moment Victoria showed up at Diegoīs side. She had run off to the tavern as soon as Diego had started to move, expecting that the people would have an equally hard time to believe this as she had upon first hearing it. Now she put a large piece of black silk in his hand. "Show them. Like you showed me," she told him.
Diego looked at the black silk in his hand. It was indeed one of Zorroīs masks; probably the one he had given to her after their first kiss, years ago, in the De la Vega garden. And now... He heaved a tight sigh, and under the supervision of the entire pueblo he slowly tied the mask over his head.
Surprised gasps were heard everywhere. And Mendozaīs eyes popped wide. "Madre de Dios, itīs true! Don Diego... Who would have thought...?!"
Diego took a deep breath, and found he could speak again. "Yes, sergeant," he said quietly. "It is true. I am Zorro."
Victoria hugged him. And Don Alejandro shone with pride. "A threefold hurray for Diego!" he announced. But the people hurrayed quite a bit longer than just three times, and before he knew it they carried Diego around the plaza on their shoulders. The people of Los Angeles were jigging around, and Diego bit his lip to keep his emotions under control. It was over now, his past as a īcriminalī. He was free. Free to live his own life. Without the hurting, unjust disdain he had endured for the past seven years. No more masquerades. No more prize on his head. He was free now. Free. Finally free.
Don Alejandro put his arm around a suddenly lonely Victoria. "It is good, Victoria," he said lovingly. "It will take some adjusting from everyone, but Diego will finally be able to be the man that he is. And that is good. Itīs over now."
Victoria nodded. "Iīm happy for him. Though I have a feeling that he himself is unable to decide as yet whether he really is happy about it or not."
Don Alejandro smiled. "I think he will be. In time."
When the people finally lowered Diego to the ground again, he pulled off his mask and walked towards the alcalde.
"Don Diego," De Soto greeted him with a hint of appreciation. "I must admit that youīve outsmarted me all those years. Congratulations."
Diego nodded in quiet acceptance of his praise. "I only hope that somehow you have learned something during your time here, Ignacio. Leading people means to serve them. I hope you will get the opportunity elsewhere to try that in practice. I expect that you will make a more successfull alcalde that way." He offered his hand, and they shook it as two adversaries who had finally made their peace.
"Farewell, Ignacio," Diego said quietly.
"And all the best to you, Diego."
They gave one another one last look. Then the former alcalde of Los Angeles turned to go and gather his belongings, followed by two of the Mexican soldiers to make sure he would only take what was rightfully his.
Diego watched him go. But when he turned around, he found Mendoza standing behind him.
"Don Diego," the sergeant stuttered clumsily, "I want to thank you for all those times you saved my life. From the gallows, from the fire... How can I ever repay you?"
Diego smiled. "You have already repaid me, sergeant. Youīve practically saved my life by giving me that general pardon. And of course by being my friend."
Mendoza swallowed. "Am I still your friend?"
"Of course you are! Since Zorro and I are one and the same, I consider Zorroīs friends to be my friends, too."
Mendoza frowned. "But you know, Zor... eh, Don Diego, now that I am the temporary alcalde, I would especially like for Zorro to remain my friend."
Diego gave him a puzzled look. "Why is that?"
The sergeant cleared his throat. "Well, you are so clever in catching bandits and bringing them to justice. You are so much better at it than the lancers; you outsmart them all! So I was wondering if you... if Zorro would still be willing to help out the garrison in catching the occasional bandits."
Diego put his arm around the sergeantīs shoulders. "Sergeant, why donīt you instead give your lancers a little extra training? Iīm sure they are as able as any soldier to learn how to track down and capture a gang of armed bandits. I would be happy to help you train them, if you like."
Mendoza sighed. "They might need a lot of training, Don Diego! And what do I do in the meantime?"
Diego patted his shoulder reassuringly. "In the meantime, sergeant, I will help you to catch that occasional bandit. But I do hope that you will govern this pueblo wisely, so that I donīt have to come out to defend the people against you instead."
Mendoza shook his head vigorously. "Oh no, Don Diego, you can count on me! Iīll be the best alcalde the people of Los Angeles have ever had! Although..." He sighed. "I donīt know much about this governing stuff. Couldnīt you help me a little with that, too?"
"I donīt think so, sergeant." Diego chuckled and shook his head. "Iīve got a lovely wife now to look after, and a child on the way, too. I prefer to devote myself to those two for now. But why donīt you ask my father? He made a pretty good alcalde those few days, remember? And if I am not very much mistaken about him, I think he would love to help you!"
As soon as De Soto had gathered his things, the company of Mexican soldiers escorted him out of the pueblo towards the port of San Pedro. Colonel Vieira waved a goodbye, and the people cheered as they rode by. But when they had disappeared into the darkness outside the gate, an awkward silence fell over the plaza. That was right, they were celebrating Diegoīs and Victoriaīs wedding! Would it be allright to continue that party, or...? People looked at each other. Wondering. Enquiring.
But again, Mendoza took the lead. "Seņores y seņoras, it is still the night of the De la Vega wedding. And there is still so much delicious food on that buffet... As your alcalde, I say: letīs continue the party! Music, maestro!"
"If that is a forebode of how sergeant Mendoza is going to lead this pueblo, we may have a very festive season coming up," Don Alejandro commented dryly to Don Sebastian.
But the music started again, and within a few minutes the plaza was full of dancing couples once more. After all, now they had not only a wedding to celebrate, but also the appointment of a new, good-hearted alcalde!
"You know," the new alcalde confessed to Don Alejandro after having secured the Donīs help as īassistant-alcaldeī, "if it wasnīt for you telling me that I had to make my own decisions, I might have been on my way to San Pedro now, too. All my life I have been taught to follow orders. A soldier is not supposed to think, you know. He just has to do what he is told. And I have done a lot of bad things, just because I was ordered to. I thought I had no choice. But this colonel asked me what I wanted - what I wanted... And then your words suddenly made me realize that I have to make my own decisions. I canīt hide behind the alcalde for bullying me into doing something cruel; I myself am responsible for what I do. So my going over to Mexico was as much a choice for my own conscience as a choice for my homeland. I donīt want to follow orders without thinking anymore."
Don Alejandro nodded in appreciation. "A very wise decision, sergeant!"
But Mendoza sighed. "Iīll probably be in confession for a month!"
"And praying for a whole year!" Don Alejandro chuckled.
Another sigh came from the sergeant. "Still, that doesnīt mean I am ready for the entire responsibility of giving orders as alcalde myself. What if the post of alcalde simply makes one mean?"
"Donīt you worry, sergeant. Weīll work this out together. As long as you let your conscience be your guidance, your orders can not possibly be cruel. Just keep in mind that leading the people means you have to serve them. To see to their needs. I am sure you can do it."
Mendoza beamed. "Do you really think so, Don Alejandro?"
"Indeed, I do!" Don Alejandro raised his glass. "To our new alcalde, Jaime Mendoza!"
"To Mendoza!" people repeated all over the place as they raised their glasses at him.
And sergeant Mendoza grew under all their appreciation, and he decided solemnly not to let them down. With the help of Don Alejandro and Zorro, he would turn Los Angeles into the finest pueblo in the territory!
T WASNīT until way past midnight, when they entered their shared bedroom with the large bed, that the newly wed couple finally had a moment to themselves. Victoria fell down on the soft bed, and Diego started taking off his black caballero-jacket.
"I canīt believe we are actually married," Victoria sighed.
Diego chuckled. "Youīd better believe it. For you are, Doņa De la Vega!"
She sat up. "Diego...?"
"Are you really happy now?"
He came to the bed and bent over to kiss her on her forehead. "Why shouldnīt I be happy? Now that I finally have you? Believe me, thatīs all Iīve ever wanted!"
She gave him a timid smile. "I know. But I mean now that Zorroīs secret is out in the open. And on top of that the news about California being sold to Mexico."
Diego tilted his head in a mocking disturbed way. "Iīve been trying hard not to think about those things too much. I wanted to concentrate on you tonight. But now that you ask..." He sighed. "As for California, I donīt know what to think. Weīll have to wait and see. And even though I do feel a little sorry for De Soto, I think sergeant Mendoza and my father will make an excellent alcalde-team for the time-being. At least that change might not turn out so bad at all."
Victoria nodded. "Thatīs true. And at least in Mexico City I suppose they are more familiar with our problems than that stupid king in his pompous palace in Madrid ever will be. To simply sell us, as if California were just one of his horses! How dare he!"
Diego grinned at the outspoken way in which she expressed herself. It was one of the many reasons why he loved her so much.
"And Zorro?" Victoria asked.
Diego heaved a sigh and came to sit next to her. "I donīt know, Victoria. It is a huge, a tremendous relief that I have received this pardon. I doubt whether you, or anyone will ever be able to fully understand just how relieved I am for that. But on the other hand, I feel sort of... exposed. I wasnīt prepared. I wasnīt ready yet to share all that with the entire town. I knew I had to at that moment, but it meant I had to expose more of myself than I actually wished. Like being forced to show your innermost wishes and dreams; those intimate ones that youīd rather keep to yourself."
Victoria smiled and snuggled up to him. "I understand. Well, I think I do. But youīll get used to it. Perhaps, after leading a double life for so long, it is just as difficult for you to combine Zorro and Diego into one man as it is for others to start seeing you as one person."
Diego smiled. "I think you may be right."
They sat in silence for a while before Victoria sighed: "Diego, I am exhausted. I know we finally have the chance to make love legitimately now, but... do you think we can defer it until morning?"
He kissed her neck. "That sounds like a good idea. After all: weīve got a whole life together now, so thereīs no need to rush. My wishes are rather modest, too, right now: I just want to hold you in my arms and sleep till lunch or something."
She giggled. "Well, letīs get ready for bed then."
Still, getting undressed in the otherīs presence was quite an adventure, too. Diego couldnīt resist stroking and kissing her soft bare skin and letting his eyes roam over her bewitching figure, and Victoria shuddered for belated fear at the sight of the dozen or so ugly scars all over Diegoīs body. Scars from bulletwounds, from swords, from knives...
"Well, I did get hit sometimes," Diego apologized. "Not even Zorro is perfect, you know. And you have one yourself, too, remember?"
But when they finally blew out the candles and got into their soft and inviting bed, they both just wanted to sleep. Still, it took some trial-and-error to find a comfortable way of lying in each otherīs arms. But in the end they lay folded up like two small spoons, Victoria with her back to Diegoīs chest, and he with his arm wrapped around her belly, over which Victoria laid her arm again.
Diego nuzzled in her hair. "Good night, Victoria mine." Gently he rubbed the curve of her belly. But all of a sudden, Victoria sat up with start.
"What is it?" Diego asked alarmed.
Victoria looked down at her small baby-belly. "I felt something..."
Diego sat up, too. "What?"
Slowly, Victoria moved her hand over her belly. And just as suddenly, she halted. "Again!" She took a deep breath. "Do you think it is the baby moving? Is he that strong yet? Can he move?"
Diego just stared at her belly. "I donīt know. Maybe."
"Feel it." She took his hand and placed it on her belly. Diego waited in anticipation, but nothing happened. But when Victoria started to move his hand around, he, too, felt a tiny little push from the inside of her belly to the palm of his hand.
He swallowed hard. "Our child, Victoria..."
She nodded. As unreal as it was, for her it was the definite proof that something living was indeed growing inside her. And it was not until the tiny little being in there had obviously fallen asleep that they lay down for the second time. Far too overwhelmed by this new development to be able to fall asleep themselves.
FTER TWO DAYS and three nights behind locked doors in which they thoroughly enjoyed each otherīs company in every possible way - with only an occasional midnight snack whenever their stomachs started protesting a little too audible - Victoria and Diego de la Vega decided it was about time to start sharing their life with others again. Victoria felt she needed to check on her tavern, and Diego discovered that he was dying to know how things were going in their now Mexican pueblo.
The morning was already half way, and they found the hacienda deserted. Obviously, Don Alejandro and Felipe were out somewhere. Still, Maria (the De la Vega cook) was happy to fix them a late breakfast, and Victoria wondered how she would like it in the long run not to be cooking anymore.
"You know, itīs just great that someone is preparing food for me for a change," she told Diego, "but I canīt help thinking that after a while Iīd probably miss it. The joy it gives me to prepare a delicious dish for the people I love. Do you think I could persuade Maria to let me cook dinner once in a while?"
Diego grinned. "You can always ask. I wouldnīt mind. I love the taste of anything you put in front of me, just because it has felt your touch."
Victoria grinned back at him. "And then I can leave doing the dishes to Maria. What a life...!"
"So, what are you going to do with the tavern now?" Diego asked as he led the wagon over the rocky sandtrack towards Los Angeles.
Victoria shrugged. "I donīt know. Iīd like to keep working as long as I can. I know thatīs not the way women usually do when theyīre expecting," she added when Diego glanced at her. "I just canīt see myself staying at home, sitting in a chair for half a year or so, just waiting for this baby to come out. Iīm pretty sure Iīd get bored stiff within a week! Thereīll be plenty of time for that towards the end, I suppose."
Diego gave her a somewhat worried smile. "Well, I think itīs okay, if thatīs what you want. As long as you donīt overwork yourself. But Iīll be spending a lot of time in the tavern then, watching over you to make sure you donīt exhaust yourself!"
She smiled and squeezed his arm. "My guardian angel, eh?"
He returned the gentle squeeze before continuing: "Still, you might want to start looking for someone to replace you this winter. I suspect youīll be out of the running for at least two months around the time the baby will be born, so..."
She nodded. "I will. But itīs fairly early for that: itīs only August."
They rode into town and looked around. Everything seemed exactly the same as it always had been: trading farmers, women getting water from the well, people sauntering over the plaza, now and then stopping to exchange a few words with some acquaintance. A lot of people greeted them, too, with a happy smile for the newly wed couple.
Diego steered the little wagon towards the tavern, helped Victoria down and tied the horse to the tetheringpole. "You go in; I want to find my father first," he told her.
That was not too hard: Don Alejandro and sergeant Mendoza were in the office.
"Hola Diego!" his father exclaimed. "So you two have finally managed to let go of each other?"
Diego gave him a mischievous grin. "Hm... for a little while. How are things going here?"
Mendoza beamed. "Fine! Just fine, Don Diego! Your father is helping me with all the paperwork, and weīve discovered that our Mexican friends forgot to leave any guidelines for taxes. So at the moment, everything in Los Angeles is tax-free!"
Diego nodded in approval. "That sure sounds good - in the short term. I just hope they wonīt have us pay doubles as soon as they find out."
"Oh, no, they wonīt, Don Diego. I canīt believe they would be so cruel. So why donīt we go over to the tavern and have a tax-free lunch? Iīm so hungry; it must be lunchtime, am I right?"
So shortly afterwards the three men sauntered over the plaza towards the tavern. But halfway they were stopped by one of the farmers. "Sergeant, how about the money? Arenīt we supposed to use Mexican money now?"
But Mendoza shrugged and slapped the man on the shoulder. "As long as they donīt send us any money to replace our old Spanish pesos, I take it we can continue using our old money," he reassured him.
"But what is it worth?" the farmer insisted.
Mendoza looked somewhat uncomfortable, so Diego helped him out: "Itīs worth exactly the same as it was before. Itīs still the same peso, isnīt it? Valid money throughout the Spanish empire. And as soon as Mexico sends us a load of their currency, we will simply trade in our old Spanish coins for the Mexican ones. Youīve got nothing to worry about, amigo. The value of your money has not changed."
The farmer thanked him and went off to tell the others. And Mendoza and the two De la Vega men continued towards the tavern. But Don Alejandro stopped dead in his tracks the moment he entered the establishment. "Diego," he asked quietly, "why is Victoria here, working?! Shouldnīt she be quietly at home, resting or something?"
Diego sighed and shook his head. "In my heart I would prefer that for her, too. But most of all I want her to be happy, father. She would like to keep working a little longer. And you know as well as I do that sitting still is a torture for Victoria. Let her enjoy her work as long as she can. But I promise you, Iīm going to keep a very close eye on her."
"Hm," was all Don Alejandro huffed in return.
HE WEEKS passed and turned into months. And life in Los Angeles went on as it always had. If it wasnīt for the absence of Ignacio de Soto, people sometimes wondered if it had all been a dream: the foreign soldiers that night, California becoming a part of Mexico... But as it was, the pueblo was run by sergeant Mendoza and Don Alejandro de la Vega, and they ran it to everybodyīs satisfaction. After a few weeks of being a completely tax-free pueblo, Don Alejandro had finally managed to convince the sergeant that in the long run it was not wise to simply run the pueblo on Zorroīs former reward money: there had to be some inflow of capital, too. So they devised an incometax that requested only a few pesos a year from the poor farmers, and quite a lot from the rich landowners. Even the soldiers had to pay tax on their income now. People muttered a little about it, but since this was to be the only tax, the lamentations soon quieted down, and most people agreed that at least it was fair that the rich should pay more than the poor.
Diego spent a few hours every day training the lancers, as he had promised Mendoza. The rest of the day he usually spent in the tavern, watching over Victoria. Maria and Pilar had taken over breakfast, but Victoria still took control all the way from lunch to closing-time. Diego couldnīt say he was extremely happy with it, but Victoria still seemed to enjoy her work. Still, from the way she put her hands on her back for support now and then he could tell that she would soon have to quit the eternal running around that her work required. As it was, her belly was steadily growing bigger and heavier, and he could not possibly imagine that it made her work any easier. So sometimes he simply pulled her down beside him, to force her to take a break. This was usually met with initial protest, but within a few minutes sheīd always relax in his arms. If it wasnīt for him, he suspected sheīd still be running her feet off.
One day however, things got a bit out of hand. It had been extraordinary busy when he came in with the lancers after their training. All three of the girls were flustered; they were stressing around preparing the orders and passing them out to the customers. Diego took one look at the busy beehive and the next time Victoria had passed out her order and returned to the kitchen with new ones, he pulled her down next to him.
"Time for a break, dear. Youīre exhausted."
But Victoria shook her head and got up again. "Not now, Diego. Itīs terribly busy."
But Victoria had already hurried off to the kitchen. And he sighed.
The same story repeated itself a couple of times during the afternoon, and in the end Diego got angry as well as concerned. It was getting easier and easier to tell that her back was troubling her today, and even though she was obviously exhausting herself, she refused to take even a few minutesī break just to catch her breath. He tried to help gathering plates and glasses, but she pushed him aside. "Donīt. Youīll just get in the way."
"Then tell me what I can do to help! I donīt want you stressing around like this!"
"Just stay where you are and let me get on with my work." She brushed past him, and with a sigh he sat down again. But the next time she declined his urging her to take a break he got up and followed her to the kitchen.
"Please, Diego, Iīm busy," she snapped without even turning to look at him.
"Yes, and youīre exhausted, too. Now why donīt you take a break when you obviously need one!"
Victoria kept busy with the food. "Itīs busy. I canīt leave everything to Pilar and Maria. That wouldnīt be fair."
"Yes, you can! You are six months gone and they are not! Youīre entitled to taking it easier than other people!"
Victoria winced at his mentioning the six months, but she took the plates sheīd been preparing and walked towards the curtain. "You canīt tell me what to do, Diego de la Vega! I am fine and I like it when itīs busy. And I think I myself am more able to determine how Iīm feeling than you are. And now if youīll excuse me? I have a tavern to run." And she walked out into the dining-room before he could make an answer.
Diego was left, brooding and worrying. She kept refusing his every request for a break or even for taking it easy. But he couldnīt possibly escape her stretching and supporting her back whenever she had the chance.
When the time had finally come to close, Diego was quick in bolting the door before turning to his wife. She was gathering the last glasses from the tables. He took them out of her hands and put them on the counter in the kitchen. Victoria wanted to start doing the dishes, but he grabbed her wrist and stated with suppressed anger: "And now Iīve had enough. Youīre are coming home with me this instant!"
Victoria tried to pull away. "Donīt be ridiculous. I canīt leave the tavern like this! I have to clean the dishes and the tables and..."
"Maria and Pilar can take care of that tomorrow. Iīve had enough of this bravery. Youīre coming home now and you donīt set a foot in this tavern for at least a week!"
He grabbed her shawl and dragged her out the back door. Victoria resisted with all her might, but she knew it was fruitless anyway: Diego was far stronger than she was.
"Diego de la Vega, you donīt own me, you know! You canīt tell me what to do!"
"No. But when we got married, I vowed that I would take care of you. And since you refuse to take care of yourself right now, I will." He wanted to lift her up onto the wagon, but she slapped his fingers and climbed in without his help. The whole drive home was made in brooding silence. Diego pulled the little wagon to a halt at the front door, and again Victoria climbed down before he could even begin lending her a hand. So he left the horse and the wagon to Miguel and strode in after her.
He was met in the hallway by a puzzled Felipe. "Whatīs wrong with Victoria? She just walked by me without a word!"
Diego nodded with a grim smile. "You might want to make yourself scarce for a little while, amigo. I have a bone to pick with your mother." He patted his sonīs shoulder and walked past him into the library. Just in time to see Victoria carefully lowering herself on a chair with a sigh, causing his concern to get the better of his anger again.
"Victoria, why are you being so stubborn about this? Youīre going to have a baby within three months; no one is expecting you to just go on as normal."
Her eyes flashed fire as she looked up; obviously she was still mostly angry. "I donīt need you telling me what I can and canīt do, Diego! Now whoīs pregnant here: you or me?"
"Well, you are, but..."
"Right. Then leave it up to me to decide what I can and canīt do, will you?" She got up and hurried away towards the bedroom. Diego went after her. "Victoria!" But she slammed the door shut in his face, and bolted it right away.
He sighed. "Victoria, let me in," he demanded.
"Victoria! This is my bedroom, too, remember?"
"Go and sleep in your old bed then," was the answer he got through the door.
"No. Victoria, I..."
"Leave me alone!" A loud crash at the other side of the door made him jump, and he wondered what it was she had thrown. He sighed. Obviously he was getting nowhere here. And he didnīt feel like fighting through a locked door.
Fortunately, there were other ways. He went through the back door into the garden, to the window of their bedroom. Luck was with him: it was open, and in the blink of an eye he pulled himself up and jumped into the room.
Victoria sat up with a start. "What are you doing?"
"I want to talk with you. And I donīt like being locked out."
Victoria got up from the bed. "There is nothing to talk about, except for you violating my privacy. Canīt a girl have a moment to herself anymore?" she demanded sternly.
"Later." Diego crossed his arms. "Victoria, why are you being so stubborn all of a sudden about taking a break?"
"Because I didnīt want a break, thatīs all."
"Thatīs not answering the question. Why donīt you want a break when your body is clearly telling you that you need one?"
"It was not!"
"It was, too! Youīre exhausted!"
"So what! Why donīt you just get off my back and leave me alone!" she yelled back at him. But suddenly the tears came streaming down her face as she continued: "Iīm fine, really. Iīve never felt better." And to Diegoīs surprise, and inspite of herself, she threw herself into his arms and cried violently. "Itīs just too much, Diego..." she sobbed. "My back is killing me... And I hardly get a wink of sleep nowadays, with this baby kicking around all night... And this belly is getting so heavy already, and January is still so far off... And Iīm scared to death for giving birth... And now you are yelling at me, too..."
Soothingly he rubbed her back. If Victoria broke down in tears, things must be really getting on top of her, for she hardly ever cried. Still, the logic behind her refusing to take a break with so many physical inconveniencies bothering her escaped him. But it sounded like they definitely needed to talk.
"Come on," he whispered in her hair. He lifted her in his arms and carefully lowered himself with his dear load in one of the easy chairs by the window. Victoria snuggled up to him as well as she could. But her baby-belly was really getting in the way by now.
Diego kissed her tears away. "Why didnīt you tell me?" he asked gently.
Victoria swallowed. "Youīd only tell me to stay at home from now on and take it easy."
He nodded. "I probably would, yes. And Iīm pretty sure I will do so now." He frowned. "But what is so bad about staying home taking it easy when your work is getting to heavy?"
She let out a quavery sigh. "I donīt know. It gives me something to do. It keeps me from worrying, I guess."
"Then what are you worrying about? Perhaps youīre worrying over nothing!"
Victoria shivered. "If the baby is going to be allright for example."
"Yes..." Diego sighed with resignation. "I suppose thatīs something every parent worries about. But there is not much we can do about that until heīs out and we can see him with our own eyes."
Victoria nodded. "And Iīm scared to death for giving birth. Does it hurt?"
"I donīt know," Diego confessed. "I suppose it might hurt. But why donīt you ask seņora Sanchez? She should know; sheīs helped most of the babies in the pueblo into the world."
"But how does it work? How does he come out?"
Again Diego shook his head apologetically. "I donīt know, Victoria. So far Iīve only read a little on that. It seems the baby is sort of pushed out. But I could try and find out more, if you like."
She nodded. "And what if... what if I die in childbed?" she whispered.
Diego closed his eyes. He hugged her tight and let out a painful sigh. "Yes. I know these things happen. I do my best trying not to think of it, but the possibility can not be denied." He repressed a shiver. "I donīt want you to die. I donīt want to lose you. Ever. So Iīll make sure that when the time comes, both seņora Sanchez and Dr. Hernandez will be here to help you. And I, too, will see to it that Iīve read everything there is to know about it. I promise. Iīll do everything humanly possible not to let you die."
Victoria looked up to him. "So you are afraid, too," she concluded.
He gave her a sad smile. "I suppose thatīs part of becoming a parent. The difference is that I can keep myself occupied as before, while you are carrying this steadily growing baby, restricting your activities more and more."
Victoria sat up with a start. "Thatīs another thing thatīs bothering me. Actually," she gave him a hesitant smile, "that was why I was so upset today. Did you see Maria in the plaza this morning?"
He frowned in puzzlement. "Maria who?"
"Maria de la Cruz. Don Pedroīs young daughter, who got in the family way around the same time I did. She was forced to marry the De la Cruz vaquero, Pablo Gonzalez, remember?"
Diego nodded. "But I donīt recall seeing her this morning."
"Well, if the stories I heard at the time were true, her baby should be coming down in December, so she should be a few weeks ahead of me. But Diego, her belly is nearly half the size of mine! If thatīs how itīs supposed to be when youīre seven months gone, my baby in comparison should be about ready to come out!"
Diego frowned. "Are you sure sheīs ahead of you?"
"Well, thatīs what everyone said at the time. Are you sure you didnīt make a mistake when you calculated that our baby would be born in January?"
Diego looked down and carefully calculated again. "Absolutely positive. Nine months from April is January. Not November or something. Unless you..."
Her eyes flashed at him. "You know I havenīt! You are the first and the only man Iīve ever slept with!"
"I know, I know." He waved her indignation away. "Iīm just trying to find an explanation. The most logical one to me seems that those īstoriesī were somewhat speculative and inaccurate and you are actually ahead of her instead. Or perhaps..." Suddenly he turned livid. "Oh my..."
"What?" Victoria enquired incomprehensively.
But he pushed her off him and put her on her feet. "Wait here!" he snapped and ran for the door. But the door didnīt give way as it usually did when he pushed down the handle, and with a drone he smashed right into it.
Victoria couldnīt help giggling. "What are you doing?"
She got no answer as yet. Diego unbolted the door and galloped off along the corridor towards the library. Within half a minute he was back, with a stethoscope.
"Hey, I didnīt know you had one of these doctoring things," she said surprised.
Diego paid no attention to her remark. "Will you come and lie down for a moment, please?" he requested. "And take off your corsets first."
She sat down on the side of the bed. "If you untie them?"
He sat down behind her and clumsily yanked at the tightened strings. His hands were not as steady as they usually were.
"So what is it?" Victoria demanded.
But she got no answer. He just kept nervously wriggling at her corsetstrings, and when he finally had managed to free her from them, he very cautiously helped her to lie down on her back.
"Diego!" She was dying of curiosity. But there was a hint of fear in her voice as well: "What are you thinking? Is something wrong?"
"Ssh!" He put the stethoscope in his ears and started searching with the little plate over the curve of her baby-belly. Victoria got goosebumps feeling the cold metal on her warm skin, but Diego didnīt seem to notice. Slowly he moved it around, listening carefully.
"There!" he whispered. He took her hand and placed it on the side of her belly where he had found what he was looking for. "Try to keep that baby in place, if you can."
"But...?" Victoria frowned in puzzlement as he continued to search her belly with the stethoscope. Apparently he found what he was looking for on the other side of her belly. "There! I knew it!"
"Knew what?" Victoria demanded impatiently.
He pulled the stethoscope out of his ears and swallowed. Hard. "Querida..." He had to clear his throat. "Victoria... I think you might be expecting twins!"
"What!?" Victoria gasped. And then she started to laugh hysterically. "Have you gone mad?! Twins! Me? Impossible!"
"No, itīs not!" he protested gravely. "Having twins is hereditary somehow. And it does run in my motherīs family. I have identical twin-uncles, and a cousin of mine has identical twin-daughters. I met them when I was in Madrid. So itīs far from impossible for me to father twins, too."
The hysterical laughing quickly turned to crying. "Diego, Iīm already scared to death about having one baby, and now youīre telling me Iīm going to have two?!"
He pulled her up and took her in his arms. "Well, it would explain a few things, wouldnīt it?" he said as he gently rocked her. "Your belly being so much bigger than Mariaīs; you feeling so heavy; their kicking around all night long... I suppose they take turns in keeping mummy awake."
She couldnīt help smiling through her tears. "Yeah, they work in shifts..."
Diego grinned. "Smart couple, those kids of ours. But would you like to hear for yourself?" He picked up the stethoscope again, and hesitantly Victoria put it in her ears as she had seen him do. "What am I to listen for?"
"A very quick heartbeat." Slowly he moved the cold plate over her belly again until Victoria sharply drew in her breath. "You hear it?"
She nodded, and tears welled up in her eyes. "My baby..."
He hugged her gently. "Okay. Now keep your hand there to make sure he doesnīt get away. I suppose the other one is still on the other side." He moved the stethoscope, and Victoriaīs reaction told him he hit the right spot immediately.
She listened for a while; then she asked: "Isnīt it just the echo of that other sound? Sort of reverberating throughout my entire belly?"
He shook his head. "If that were the case, youīd hear it that strong wherever you listened. And thatīs not true." He placed the stethoscope somewhere else, and Victoria had to agree: she hardly heard anything there.
"But couldnīt he just have moved to the other side? Quickly?" she insisted. She still didnīt really want to believe she could be carrying twins.
"Donīt you think you would have noticed?" Diego smiled. "The way theyīve been keeping you awake at night with their jumping to and fro?"
Victoria heaved a sigh. "Thatīs true..." She shuddered and put her arms around his neck. "Diego... whatīs going to happen now?"
He sighed, too. "I suppose your belly will become extremely big these coming months. And very heavy. Carrying two children..." He kissed her forehead. "Perhaps you should go and see Dr. Hernandez. He might be able to tell you more. And I think..." He hesitated for a moment, not sure how she was going to take this. Victoria looked up. "I really think you should make haste in finding someone to replace you at the tavern. Already now the workload seems too heavy for you in your current condition; itīs likely to only get worse in the weeks to come. And you might want to start saving your strength for giving birth to two children."
He hugged her tight as he felt her shivering again. "I know, Victoria. The thought is even scarier than having just one baby. I am scared, too. But I suppose all we can do is getting used to the idea and prepare for having two children at once. Perhaps itīs time we start thinking about some names. And about furnishing the nursery, before your belly will be too big to do anything."
She nodded, and suddenly a broad smile shone on her face. "And I know of one grandfather who is going to be thrilled with this news!"
NDEED: Dr. Hernandez confirmed Diegoīs diagnosis, and to the fatherīs relief he absolutely forbade Victoria to be working in the tavern any longer. "All you need is rest! And plenty of it!" he told her.
So Victoria found herself practically grounded to the hacienda, and now that she was pretty much forced to take it easy, she discovered it wasnīt so bad after all. She could get up or lie down, sit or walk whenever she felt like it. And with a belly that seemed to get bigger, heavier and more in the way by the day, that freedom soon turned out to be a real necessity.
Her favourite spot became an easy chair near the rosebushes, with a footstool to keep her feet up. The scent of the roses was a constant reminder of all the roses she got from her beloved Zorro-Diego, and in the pleasant November-sun she could dream away for hours about her Diego and about their future together with twins. And read all Diegoīs books on gynaecology.
"Knowledge is power," he told her. "If you know what to expect when the time has come to give birth, it wonīt be half so frightening as when you have no clue whatsoever about whatīs going on in your body."
So she eagerly went through all the ones she could read (Latin and French were not exactly her strengths), and Diego told her about what he found out from the other ones. It was indeed exciting to have some idea of what miracle was going on in her body. But her feelings towards the great moment remained rather ambivalent: the books, and more importantly seņora Sanchez and the other women in the pueblo assured her that giving birth was a difficult experience, and a very painful one, too. And if it was like that for one baby... what kind of agony would she have to go through to deliver two?!
Another thing Dr. Hernandez had pointed out to them was the fact that twins had a habit of being born before the nine months were completed. "Itīs very hard to say. They might stay inside the whole nine months, which is hard on the mother but generally increases their chances for survival. But youīll have to be prepared to expect them from early December onwards. And if they indeed do come that early, then all we can do is try to keep them warm, and pray for a miracle..."
Diego had grown pale. "But how can we prevent them from being born too soon?"
Dr. Hernandez had shrugged. "Very little, Don Diego. Keep the mother calm and comfortable, and let her remain in a horizontal position as much as possible. But it still doesnīt guarantee a thing."
So as soon as it turned December, Diego grew more and more nervous by the day. Any day he could become a father now! He was both dreading the moment and looking forward to it with all his heart. The idea of his children being born and then die because they were born prematurely filled him with a fear beyond anything he had ever experienced before, and it made him extremely overprotective of Victoria. He wouldnīt let her do anything, which she thought very sweet for a few hours, but then it started to annoy her to the point that she felt like strangling him every time he tried to take something out of her hands.
Victoria in the meantime was growing heartily tired of being pregnant. Her belly had become really huge, its weight was accordingly, and it was still growing. If Diegoīs size was any indication of his childrenīs, the babies she was carrying would be gigantic! One of the babies had recently dropped and was now deeply engaged, restricting her movements even further. The other one however was still pushing up against her ribcage, causing a constant shortness of breath. So she could scarcely breathe, eat, walk, lie down, stand, move, sit... As Christmas approached, she felt the babies were really getting too big and too heavy for her: everything hurt. And since she couldnīt possibly find a comfortable position in bed either, she had a hard time getting some sleep, too, in or out of Diegoīs arms. So with a grumpy Victoria and a tense and nervous Diego, we can say that the holiday-season was not exactly entered in a peaceful and serene atmosphere at the De la Vega hacienda that year.
T WAS LATE in the afternoon of Christmas Eve. Felipe was decorating the Christmastree in the library. Usually he did it together with Diego, but Don Alejandro had given the servants the night off, and now he had needed a hand in the corral with something. So now he had only Victoria watching him and fingering the ornaments in the boxes.
"There is not much else I can do nowadays," she moaned as she shifted her position a little. "Just watch what everyone is doing and long for the day Iīll be able to do all those simple things again myself..." She picked up the little miniature Zorro Felipe had carved a few years ago, and smiled. "I like the way you put up the people of the pueblo in your Christmastree," she added. "Itīs like you want them all to be part of your lives, even at Christmas."
Felipe nodded. He felt that way, too. "The De la Vega Christmastree is a picture of their grand hearts," he told her. "Everyone is welcome there."
Victoria smiled, but then stifled a cry as one of the babies kicked her in the ribs. She smiled up at him again. Wanly this time. "This big baby-belly is really starting to annoy me... I wish theyīd come out now. Iīve had enough." She sighed carefully, ready to receive another kick that didnīt come this time, and shifted again in her chair.
Felipe grinned, and with a mischievous twinkle in his eye he said: "You know, we should have let you play Mother Mary in the Christmas pageant this year. Youīd be perfect!"
"No, thank you very much," Victoria sighed until her breath caught because of another internal baby-kick. "Sitting in a chair is about all I can muster these days. Though Iīve never realized before what it must have been for Mother Mary to travel all the way from Nazareth to Bethlehem with a heavy baby-belly like this. Although..." she added pensively, "she was carrying the absolute sweetest, most perfect baby ever to be born of course. Instead of two wild anklebiters like these two De la Vegaīs. Sometimes I wonder if they are practicing their fatherīs acrobatics or something in there. I bet the little baby Jesus never kicked his mother in the ribs."
Felipe nodded. "Sure. But on the other hand: I think Mother Mary would have preferred to have her baby in a soft and comfortable bed like yours. Or are you following her example and giving birth in the stables, too? Next to Toronadoīs stall perhaps?"
Victoria chuckled, but it quickly stopped short and she wrapped her arms around her belly. Her face showed a frowned concentration.
"What is it? Are you okay?" Felipe signed anxiously.
"Yeah, Iīm allright," she fought out between gritted teeth. "Just one of those cramps again..."
He watched her in concern, but after a few tense minutes her muscles relaxed again and she smiled up at him. Rather wanly again, he thought, but she said happily: "Theyīre just letting us know that they wonīt be so long now, Felipe!"
He nodded, but then an urgent knock was heard on the front door, and he hurried to open it. It was sergeant Mendoza, and he looked distressed.
"Felipe! Is Zorro... I mean: is Don Diego in?"
Felipe nodded, and took the sergeant to the corral at the side of the hacienda. Victoria was actually glad to see them go, for yet another fierce cramp had grasped her belly and made her groan with pain. īIf these are only innocent cramps... what would real contractions be like?ī she shuddered.
In the meantime, sergeant Mendoza was spilling his story to Don Diego and Don Alejandro: "Don Diego, Iīm sorry itīs Christmas Eve, but we need Zorroīs help! Little Martina has been kidnapped by a guy dressed as father Christmas!"
Don Alejandro raised his eyebrows. "Dressed as father Christmas?! What a mean thing to lure a kid like that!"
"When did this happen?" Diego wanted to know. "And how old is this Martina, sergeant?"
"Six. Seven, I believe. Don Lorenzoīs little girl; you know her! The little blond one!"
"Was there only this one kidnapper?"
"No. The lancers found their tracks. There are probably four of them. Please, Don Diego, let Zorro come and help us! We donīt want the child to get hurt!"
Diegoīs mouth was a grim line as he nodded. "You can count on me, sergeant. Felipe, saddle Toronado, please; Iīll be with you in a minute. Sergeant, in which direction are they gone?"
"Weīve been following them out west."
"Okay. You go back to the lancers; Iīll catch up with you."
He ran off into the house, bursted through the library and disappeared into the secret cave without even acknowledging Victoria. Toronado may have moved to an ordinary stable, but he still kept his Zorro-outfit in the old cave. And he needed that outfit when he was chasing bandits with Mendoza. When examined logically, this was plain nonsense of course. He had been contemplating about it many times these past months, for he had always prided himself on being unsusceptible to superstition. But the fact of the matter was that he really did feel more confident in battle when wearing his mask and his black outfit than in ordinary caballero clothes. So he quickly changed his clothes and rushed back into the library.
This time he did see Victoria, and he stopped short to give her a quick kiss.
"An emergency?" she enquired.
"Yes. Felipe will explain. I love you."
"Be careful!" she called after him, but his black figure had already disappeared.
Moaning she shifted again in her chair. "Yeah, thatīs right... You go running off again, and Iīm stuck here with this horrendous baby-belly. When are you finally going to stay with me and take on your share of this agonizing business?" She grinned involuntarily. Thatīs right: Diego had hardly dared to leave the hacienda these past weeks, afraid as he was to miss his children being born. So that reproof of him always running off was rather misplaced... to put it mildly. And his continuous attempts to help her and support her were driving her so crazy that sometimes she just wanted to jump at his throat to make him stop. If only she could! Jump at anything, that is. Oh, this horribly heavy belly...!
She shifted again. Somehow she couldnīt seem to find a comfortable position at all tonight. There was always some piece of baby pushing against a sensitive spot, and if that wasnīt enough, her back was strongly protesting against the heavy load she was carrying, too. Okay, it had been protesting for weeks now, but it seemed worse this evening. And then those blasted cramps attacking her out of nowhere all the time...
She winced; the mere thought of those painful cramps seemed to have called out another one. Moaning with pain she tried to wrap her arms around her entire belly as the cramps grew stronger and stronger. But she couldnīt; her arms didnīt make it around the huge curve. She could only sit there, hugging herself, hoping the pain would subside soon this time. Oh, Diego...! If only she could take refuge in his strong embrace... Feel his arms around her, assuring her that she would be allright...
ORONADO RACED over the uneven terrain. He didnīt hesitate to put down his feet; the dark didnīt bother him. He knew every rock and every little pit here; it was his home. He had ridden his master here so often; he could safely say he knew this part of the world like the back of his hoof.
Zorro felt he could relax on the stallionīs back. He felt one with the horse, as he always had riding Toronado. It felt good. Perhaps he should go out riding more often, even these days. Just to let go of some tension. Heīd hardly left the hacienda these past weeks, afraid as he was that the babies might come while he was away. He bit his lip for a moment: what if they were to come tonight, while he was out chasing those bandits? But he quickly scolded some sense into his brain: "It would be an extremely rare coincidence for those two to come out this one night that Iīm away," he told himself.
No, it was good to get out for a change. To let go of some of the tension and frustration he felt, and let off some steam in a good fight. No matter how worthy opponents Felipe and his father were, a friendly game wasnīt quite the same as a serious swordfight.
And it was probably good to get away from Victoria for a few hours, too. They were really getting on each otherīs nerves these days. He could easily understand her being so snappy; it couldnīt possibly be easy carrying around that heavy belly 24 hours a day. He did what he could to make her as comfortable as possible, and he tried to comply to her whims whenever he could, but lately it seemed he couldnīt do anything right in her eyes. If he had been his usual calm self, her eternal reproof and outbursts probably wouldnīt have bothered him all that much - not with her present condition in mind. But as it was, he felt like a bundle of nerves himself, too... And that didnīt go very well with Victoriaīs present state of mind: again and again he found himself yelling back at her; they were often quarreling as soon as they got in each otherīs sight. He could only hope that it would be over when those babies would finally be born and things would get back to normal.
He felt a nauseating cramp in his stomach. It was becoming a matter of days now. Any day now he could become a father. A father! Would he be any good at being a father? Everyone kept telling him what a wonderful job he had done with Felipe. But the truth of the matter was, that Felipe had been some seven years old already when he had found him, and it had been his father who had taken care of him those years he had been in Madrid. What would it be like to be responsible for a child - two children! - from the very beginning? How was he supposed to lead them to grow up to be good and responsible people? To be honest, he didnīt have a clue... All he could do was praying sincerely that heīd take after his own father when it came to parenting...
He quickly caught up with sergeant Mendoza, and a little later they joined the group of lancers. They rode on together as quickly as they could, following the tracks, while Mendoza took the opportunity of filling Zorro in on the details of the kidnapping. Obviously, the bandits were after a ransom.
"Weīll get the girl out of their clutches without paying a centavo, sergeant," Zorro promised grimly, "and those bandits will be behind bars before they know the word of it."
He rode on in silence. But part of his mind was busy with the future again. What if some bandit would come and kidnap his children one day? He felt a fiery hatred blossing up inside him... he felt he could kill the man who would dare to touch one single hair on their heads!
He realized that he had voiced those thoughts before. In that discourse with the alcalde, at the time when the possibilities of De Soto harming his child were still horribly realistic. Fortunately, he didnīt have to fear any trouble from that side anymore. And for a moment he wondered if every father felt that way about his children. Would his own father have thought that way when he was a child? Would Don Lorenzo like nothing better right now than to get his hands on this father Christmas-guy and strangle him after he had gotten little Martina in safety?
"Ssht!" corporal Sepulveda hissed up front.
A tiny thread of smoke could be seen against the night-sky, originating from behind a few minor hills. Instantly, all Zorroīs instincts awakened. "Iīll go and check it out. Stay behind me. Iīll whistle if I need immediate assistance."
Carefully he steered Toronado toward the hills. He left him at the foot of the hills, and hidden by the darkness he crept forward around the first hill. The valley behind it was empty, so he continued to the next. And indeed: there they were. Four men were gathered around a small camp-fire, toasting and laughing and wishing each other a merry Christmas. A few meters away from them lay a little white bundle. It was rolling around desperately, trying to free itself from its bonds.
"Thatīs a brave little one," Zorro thought by himself. And he couldnīt help wishing for his own soon to be born children to grow up to be equally brave.
He shook his head to clear his thoughts. He had to concentrate on this little one now; when she was safe, thereīd be time enough again to daydream about all the things he would do with his own children when they would have grown a little bigger. Right now he needed a waterproof plan to get little Martina out of the banditsī clutches without putting her in unnecessary danger.
ICTORIA, DEAR, are you allright?"
Don Alejandro was helping Felipe to finish decorating the Christmastree when he suddenly became aware of Victoria continually shifting in her chair.
Victoria moaned slightly in response. "Itīs my back. Itīs killing me. I donīt know how to sit anymore," she complained, close to tears.
He sat down beside her and put his arm around her. "Why donīt you go and lie down for a while then," he kindly suggested.
But she shook her head. "Thatīs even worse," she got out between gritted teeth. But the next moment she drew in her breath and Don Alejandro felt how her whole body tensed as she wrapped her arms around her grotesque baby-belly again.
"Another cramp?" Felipe asked.
Victoria didnīt answer. She just sat there, hugging herself, groaning. And Don Alejandro and Felipe looked at each other. Neither of them was sure of what to do.
Finally, Victoria started to relax a little, and she opened her eyes again. A weak smile spread across her face as she brushed away an unspilled tear. "These horrible cramps all the time..." she panted quavery.
She tried to stretch her back, and groaned. She shifted in her chair, and again, and again, to perhaps find a somewhat less uncomfortable position. She tried to lean forward a little, but a fierce kick in the ribs made her gasp for breath and sit up again with a start. Panting, she tried to curve her back a little instead, but that cost her a kick in the stomach that made her cry out with pain. Shifting, stretching, and then yet another cramp took hold of her belly.
Don Alejandro and Felipe had watched all this with growing concern. And as they heard Victoria moan with pain under this next cramp, suddenly the truth hit Don Alejandro.
"Madre de Dios," he whispered under his breath. He turned pale. "Victoria, youīre not going to give birth now, are you? Are the babies coming?"
Felipeīs eyes widened, but Victoria only groaned in reply. When the pain finally subsided and he asked her again, she looked rather doubtful though. "Iīve had these cramps every now and then for a couple of days now. And nothing much happened," she told Don Alejandro when she had regained her breath.
"Yes, but not as bad as this!" Don Alejandro insisted.
"And theyīre coming pretty close now," Felipe added - out of curiosity, he, too, had leafed through a few of Diegoīs gynaecological books lately. "They might be serious contractions instead of innocent cramps as you call them."
He didnīt get a reply, for Victoriaīs face twisted in pain as the next cramp hit her belly.
"Thatīs it," Don Alejandro decided. "As soon as this oneīs over, weīll put you to bed and Felipe will go and get the doctor and seņora Sanchez."
"Dr. Hernandez is out of town, visiting his daughter in Santa Paula for the holidays," Felipe reminded him.
"Thatīs true. Well, then seņora Sanchez will have to do. And weīll have to get Diego back, too. I wouldnīt want him regretting missing his own children being born, like me." He felt Victoria relaxing again under his arm. "Come on, my dear. Off to bed with you."
Victoria groaned. "Do I have to? There is no way I can lie comfortably anymore."
"You just told us you couldnīt sit anymore either, so that should make little difference. Felipe, give us a hand, will you?"
Victoria struggled to get up with their help. But as soon as they started walking towards the bedroom, she cried out and looked down. Not that she could look around her belly, but both Felipe and Don Alejandro followed her gaze and stared at the puddle forming at her feet.
"This is it!" Victoria whispered excited. "My water broke: Iīm in labour! The babies are coming...! Finally!"
Don Alejandro winced. But then he ordered Felipe: "Iīll take care of Victoria. You find Miguel and tell him to get seņora Sanchez here immediately! And you go after Diego and tell him to come home! Now!"
But Felipe shook his head. "None of the servants is in. You gave them the night off because itīs Christmas Eve, remember?"
"Blast!" Don Alejandro cursed. But he felt Victoria shriveling up with pain again under the next attack of contractions, and he had to support her with all his might to keep her on her feet.
"Iīll go and get seņora Sanchez myself, and then go after Diego!" Felipe decided quickly.
He ran off, and Don Alejandro called after him: "Take a fast horse! Amaranto! Or Valentino! And for Godīs sake: hurry!!"
ELIPE WAS racing through the night on Valentinoīs bare back. He hadnīt want to lose time by saddling the horse, and after all, it did make very little difference to him. But seņora Sanchez had not been home. Her husband told him she had been called to the De la Cruz hacienda this morning, for young Maria was finally going to have her baby.
Felipe hadnīt wasted a second: he had jumped back on Valentino and set off at a neckbreaking speed to the De la Cruz hacienda. Their hacienda was situated some five miles northeast of the pueblo, and he grumbled under his breath about the time he was losing. The longer it took to get to seņora Sanchez, the farther Diego and the lancers might be...
Upon arriving at the hacienda, he rode up all the way to the front door before jumping off his horse. He let the knocker come down heavily. And again. And again.
A servant came to open the door. "How may I help you?" he asked politely.
Too politely for a Felipe in a deadly hurry: he simply brushed the astonished servant aside and ran into the hacienda in search of seņora Sanchez.
He had never been here before. The De la Cruz kept pretty much to themselves and had little intercourse with the other people in the territory; not even with the other caballeros. Fortunately, he ran into Don Pedroīs arms before the indignified dooropening servant caught up with him.
"Don Felipe! What are you doing here?"
He sounded tense, on the brink of becoming a grandfather, but Felipe hardly noticed. He wriggled out of Don Pedroīs grip and started signing that he needed to speak with seņora Sanchez urgently. But because of the De la Cruzī limited intercourse with even the De la Vegaīs, Don Pedro was not well enough acquainted with Felipeīs sign language to be able to make sense of the young manīs urgent gestures.
"Slow down, Don Felipe. What is it?" he told him.
Felipe tried again. Oh, how he missed his voice in moments like this! But he still couldnīt make Don Pedro understand, and impatiently he made a writing motion.
"Yes, writing it down seems like a good idea." Don Pedro sighed. He took him to the library and gave him a piece of parchment and a quill, and motioned to the inkwell.
Felipe sat down and quickly scribbled: īI need to speak to seņora Sanchez! Itīs urgent!ī
Don Pedro shook his head. "Sheīs in with my daughter. Youīll have to wait till sheīs done." He sighed in agony, worry about his daughter written in his every feature.
Felipeīs eyes narrowed and he felt a fury blossing up inside him. He picked up the quill, stabbed it into the inkwell again and wrote: īVictoriaīs babies are coming, too! Itīs going very fast: her water broke and the contractions are strong and only a few minutes apart. Dr. Hernandez is out of town. Seņora Sanchez has to come with me! Now!ī
He stood up and handed the parchment to Don Pedro. He looked the older man sternly in the face as he read the words. And when Don Pedro looked up, he found himself looking into the eyes of a De la Vega. The De la Vegaīs, a family whose power, wealth and influence were legendary in both California and in Spain. A family whose word carried weight throughout the entire Spanish empire. A family that could inspire anyone to obedience. Even demand it when they thought it necessary. And this young Don Felipe indeed did compel his obedience when it came to seeing seņora Sanchez. So he slowly nodded. "Come along then," he said quietly, and led the way through a corridor towards Mariaīs bedroom.
He knocked. A worried Doņa Luisa came to the door, and he exchanged a few words with his wife. Meanwhile, Felipe heard a hairraising moaning and crying in the background, and he felt goosebumps creeping all over his body. Was having a baby really that bad?! Poor Victoria!
Finally, Doņa Luisa went back in and seņora Sanchez appeared. Immediately Felipe gestured that she had to come with him.
"What is it, Feli... Don Felipe?" she asked quietly.
Felipe started explaining, but then he snatched the piece of parchment out of Don Pedroīs hand and gave it to seņora Sanchez to read.
She read it silently and then looked up into his urging eyes. "I see. But Don Felipe..." She led him a few meters down the corridor, to avoid Don Pedro overhearing her words. "Don Felipe," she continued gravely, "I can not possibly leave here now. I canīt! There is a young girl in there giving birth, but there are all kinds of complications. If I leave her now, she will die! And so will her baby."
But Felipe pointed at Victoriaīs name at his paper. "And what about her then!?"
"Don Felipe," seņora Sanchez took hold of his shoulders, "Doņa Victoria will be allright. She is a strong and healthy young woman. And her children were both in a perfect position to be born the last time I saw her. Let nature run its course and she will be allright. Don Diego knows enough about medicine to be able to assist her. But I canīt leave here, at least not until Mariaīs baby is born, or the young mother will die for sure. Doņa Victoria will be allright."
Felipe looked at her in horror and despair. And seņora Sanchez looked after him as he rushed off, back to the front door and outside. There was fear in her eyes. "Sheīll have to be..."
Again, Felipe was flying through the dark desert on Valentinoīs bare back. He was fuming. Heīd probably lost an entire hour, and for nothing! Poor Victoria!
He shivered at the memory of young Mariaīs desperate moaning and crying. Was Victoria going through something like that, too, at this very moment?! He didnīt dare to think of it too much. Heīd just have to get help. And fast. Diego was his only hope now. But he might be hours away by now...
Orientating on the nightsky he chose a slightly southwestern direction. It led him past the pueblo, and past the hacienda. For a moment he deliberated whether he should go in and tell them that seņora Sanchez would not be coming any time soon. But he decided against it; it would mean losing even more time. Don Alejandro would just have to hold the fort by himself a little longer.
So he passed the hacienda by about a mile, still riding as fast as he could, heading west, following the tracks the lancers had made earlier that evening.
ENDOZA AND his lancers turned around annoyed at the sound of a galloping horse. What fool was coming to disturb their strategy?
But Felipe reined in his horse and jumped off right in front of them. "Whereīs Zorro?" he demanded.
"Behind those hills, taking in the situation," Mendoza answered. "But what are you doing here? Hey, ho! Stop!"
Felipe had bounced off around the hill immediately, and sergeant Mendoza had no choice but to go after him. Why, the boy might walk straight into the bandits!
"You stay here; Iīll go get the boy back," he grunted to his lancers before setting off after Felipe.
The rustling and puffing Zorroīs ears picked up a few moments later were definitely Mendozaīs. But when he looked around, it was Felipe who emerged from the shadows.
"Felipe? What are you doing here!" he hissed.
"Yes, thatīs what I want to know, too!" Mendoza panted as he crawled up behind Felipe.
But Felipe had already started explaining. "The babies are coming! You have to come home! Now!! Itīs going fast!"
"What?!" Zorro squeaked. For a moment he felt the world spinning around him, and he grabbed hold of Felipeīs shoulder to steady himself. There may be a first time for everything, but this was definitely not a good time to try out fainting. Fiercely he shook his head to try and get a hold of himself again.
But Felipe already continued: "Victoria needs you! Dr. Hernandez is out of town, and seņora Sanchez is with Maria de la Cruz and says she canīt leave there or the girl will die! You will have to help Victoria delivering the children. But hurry!!"
Felipeīs signing had gone too fast for Mendoza to follow. Instead he looked at Zorro to find out what Felipe was so worried about. And his jaw dropped. Never before - either with Zorro being his adversary or his partner - never before had he seen plain fear in the masked manīs eyes. Fear was a word he had always presumed to be missing in Zorroīs vocabulary. Apparently he had been wrong.
He saw Zorro swallowing with difficulty. Two, three times. Then he jumped to his feet. "Sorry sergeant, I have to..." His eyes fell on the little white bundle down there by the camp-fire in the valley beneath him. Little Martina, wrestling with her ropes. If that was his own kid... He quickly made a decision: "Iīll get the child out right now. Then at least she will be safe. Youīll have to take care of the rest, Mendoza."
"But...!" Mendoza started to protest. But Zorro had already disappeared into the darkness around them, leaving it up to Felipe to explain the matter to the sergeant.
Supple as a tiger Zorro crawled and jumped closer to where the girl was lying, always keeping to the shadows. With a final, easy jump he landed next to her. The bandits still didnīt seem to notice, but the girl nearly cried out in fear seeing the masked black figure bending down over her. Zorro was just quick enough to put a hand over her mouth and whisper: "Ssh! Donīt be scared of me, brave one! Itīs Zorro. Iīll get you out of here."
Quickly he cut her ropes and the girl looked up to him in admiration. "Zorro!" she whispered excited. True, Zorro didnīt show his face in town very often anymore these days. It wasnīt necessary now that Mendoza was the alcalde, for he was nice to the people. But even the youngest children in the pueblo knew that Zorro was a legendary hero, who could beat any vicious bandit and outsmart even the meanest alcalde! And here he was, right in front of her, saving her from those bandits who had taken her!
"Thank you, Zorro!" she whispered happily. She wrapped her arms around his neck and gave him a wet kiss on the cheek. "You are the best!"
"Ssht!" he hushed her again.
But it was too late: the bandits had spotted them. "Quick! Itīs Zorro!" one of them exclaimed just as Zorro lifted Martina into his arms. He put her down immediately and stepped in front of her. "Run!" he told her as he pointed in Mendozaīs direction, but the first bandit already pulled out a pistol and took aim.
But there was Felipe. As Zorro yanked the pistol out of the banditīs hand with his whip, Felipe jumped down the low ridge where he and Mendoza were hiding, bounced over to the child and quickly pulled her to safety in the shadows. Zorro saw him flashing by, and he gave his son a grateful thought before concentrating on the bandits in front of him.
"I really do enjoy a good fight," he told them while passing out punches that left them sprawling on the ground. "But unfortunately I donīt have time for such sport tonight. Sorry, gentlemen! Adios!"
He jumped onto the ridge where Mendoza was watching. "Theyīre all yours, sergeant. And see to it that little Martina gets home, will you?"
Without waiting for an answer he dived into the darkness, and only a moment later the sergeant heard Toronado whickering and then taking off with flying hooves. And while Mendoza called for his men to tie up the four groggy kidnappers, Felipe appeared out of nowhere with Martina and left her without a word in Mendozaīs care, before taking off on his horse at top speed as well.
ICTORIA? FATHER!" Zorro bursted in - very unusual - through the front door. He hadnīt even taken the time to tell Toronado to go to his stable; he hoped the horse would figure that out by himself.
Don Alejandro came rushing out of the bedroom. "Thank goodness, youīre here! Where is seņora Sanchez?"
"I donīt know; Felipe said something about her not being able to make it. Where is Victoria? How is she?" he hurried.
"In the bedroom. I donīt know; sheīs in a hell of a lot of pain, son."
Zorro ran for the bedroom and fell down on his knees by Victoriaīs face. It was tearstained and twisted with pain, and he reached out to carefully push back a strand of her disheveled black hair. "Victoria..." His voice was croaky. But she heard him and opened up her eyes. The world of pain and agony in them made him gasp.
"Zorro..." was all she mumbled under her breath before she shriveled up in another wave of pain. Desperately she reached for his hand. He took it, and she squeezed. Hard. So hard that the tears sprung into his eyes.
īMadre de Dios, what terrible pain she must be going through!ī was the thought that shot through his brain. Was this normal? And here was he, and what could he do?!
But Victoria herself required his undivided attention now: she cried out and started panting, heavily, but than faster. "Baby... itīs coming...!" she forced out.
Zorro felt the blood draining from his face. "Now?" he squeaked. "You mean you have to push?!"
Her face told him the answer, and he swallowed hard. This was it: he was on the brink of becoming a father now... Oh help...!
HEN FELIPE finally raced into the garden of the De la Vega hacienda, he and Valentino nearly bumped into a big black form. Obviously Toronado had found something more interesting than his stable: he was happily munching the famous De la Vega rosebushes.
Felipe shook his head at the horse in reproof. He could imagine Diego being in a hurry, but... Still, he, too, rushed inside first to hear if there was any news before taking care of the horses.
He found Don Alejandro nervously pacing the hall. And from the bedroom came fiery voices. Felipe raised his eyebrows. "Are they fighting?! Even now!?"
"I hate you!" they clearly heard Victoria crying out between pain and anger.
Don Alejandro heaved a sigh. "I donīt know, Felipe. It sure sounds like it," he added as they heard Diego raising his nervous but equally angry voice.
"Itīs all your fault!" they heard Victoria again, panting and half crying. "If you hadnīt made love to me, I wouldnīt be..."
"My fault?!" Diegoīs indignant words were clearly audible now. "What īmy faultī! You were the one who raped me, remember?!"
Don Alejandroīs eyes popped wide while they heard Victoria cry out in pain again. "Victoria...?? Raped Diego?!" he mouthed in disbelief.
Felipe nodded rather embarrassed. "At least thatīs what Diego told me the first time. That she practically overpowered Zorro in order to... well, to make him give her a child."
Slowly Don Alejandro shook his head. "Well, who would have thought..." he mumbled. "The invincible Zorro being overpowered by one single lady! So simple a trap that the alcalde has never even bothered to try it!"
N THE MEANTIME the first one of the next De la Vega generation was getting close to being born in the delivery-room. Upon running into the room, Diego had only cast aside his hat; now that he was anxiously kneeling at the foot-end of the bed to help his child into the world, he had taken off his gloves and his belt with the sword as well, but for the rest he was still dressed as Zorro.
Victoria moaned and panted as she tried to push out the child with all her might. She didnīt have the breath, nor the inclination to be scolding Diego any longer. All she could think of now was for this baby to come out and bring this agony to an end.
Gently, Diego helped the little head to come out. He swallowed hard as his long fingers stroked it. "The head is out. Youīre nearly there, Victoria!"
And there, with two more pushes, the little baby slithered into his hands.
For a moment, he couldnīt say a word. He just looked at the baby in his hands, his mind in awe. This was his own child he was holding! A child conceived out of Victoria and himself!
It was Victoria who broke the spell. Still panting heavily with the effort, she enquired quavery: "Diego? Is it allright?"
He tore his eyes off the little miracle in his hands to look at the mother of his child. "Itīs a girl," was all he answered huskily.
"Can I see her? Hold her?" Victoria pleaded longingly.
He swallowed again. "Iīll have to cut the umbilical cord. And she has to breathe."
He looked around for something to cut the cord with. His eyes fell on the dagger he had gotten from his sabre-master Sir Edmund Kendall. He lay down his little daughter, picked up the dagger and held its blade in the flame of one of the candles to sterilize it. Then he bound the living cord and with his teeth in his lower lip he cut the bond between mother and daughter. Victoria gasped, but more importantly the little girl gasped for her first breath, too, and started crying. Diego put down the dagger, and with a lump in his throat he picked up their little daughter and handed her to an exhausted but beaming Victoria. But she did more than just receive the baby from his hands; she pulled him close as well.
"Our daughter, Diego."
He nodded, speechless, as he caressed her cheek.
But just as Victoria lifted up her head to kiss their newborn daughter, her face twisted in pain. She moaned. "Not again...!"
Quickly Diego laid the little child next to her, and only ten minutes later he received another little girl in his hands. The procedure with the dagger was repeated, and within a few minutes the dead beat but excited and happy Victoria had two little girls in her arms. Diego stood next to the bed, looking down at them, with all kinds of emotions running through his mind. Relief, happiness, fear, joy, pride, worry about the future... Now he hadnīt just Victoria to take care of; there were these two tiny little girls now, too! Was he going to be a good father? Would he be able to keep them from any harm? They were so small, so tiny... so vulnerable. Would he ever be able to trust the very man that one day would come to ask for either their hand in marriage? His daughters, his little girls... And as a sudden wave of love swept over him, he fell down on his knees and took two of those little shrimp-fists in his large hands.
Victoria reached for his cheek. "Thank you, Diego. For these wonderful daughters youīve given me."
He silently took her hand and kissed the palm. "I should thank you instead."
Two brown eyes met two blue ones, and melted into each other.
"I love you, Diego," Victoria whispered. But then she giggled. "Or should I say: I love you, Zorro? These two really are children of the fox, arenīt they? They have been conceived by Zorro, and again it was Zorro who helped them into the world!"
Hurriedly Diego pulled off his mask. "Letīs just hope and pray they wonīt follow in Zorroīs tracks. I wouldnīt have a single moment of peace if they did!"
ITHIN A FEW weeks, Victoria was up and about again. They had hired a day-nurse to help her take care of little Elena and Annarita, but Victoria just loved to fuss around with the little girls herself, and she spent practically all her time with them. Diego, too, loved to hold them and take care of them, and Don Alejandro was simply infatuated with his two little granddaughters. Felipe however preferred to just look at them for now; he was eagerly awaiting the day they would be big enough to play with.
It was early February when Diego decided he wanted to have a picture of his family. He got the camera, the tripod and the flash from the cave, and Felipe helped him setting everything up. Elena and Annarita were dressed in pink lace, and Victoria and Felipe, too, put on their best clothes for the first De la Vega family picture.
Don Alejandro watched all the commotion with a grin, and asked: "Are you sure this is going to work, Diego?"
"Absolutely," his son answered. "Iīve done this before. I just hope the girls can manage to hold still long enough."
"And then you are going to have a picture? Just in one snap?" Don Alejandro could scarce believe it, but Diego nodded enthusiastically.
"Iīll have to develop it of course; that takes some time. But I was hoping to take such a picture once a year. For example on the girlsī birthday. And if we put up those pictures on the wall, we can just see them grow over time. Iīm sure that if I could find a way to simplify the process, such family picture galleries would become a common feature in every family home. With walls filled with pictures on children and grandchildren."
Finally things were ready, and Diego started to pose Felipe, Victoria and the twins on the double seat in the library.
"Hey, shouldnīt you be in this family picture?" Victoria asked.
"Well, someone has to take it," he apologized.
"Oh, if itīs not too complicated..." Don Alejandro offered. "It might be fun to mock around with such fancy equipment." He chuckled, but Diego looked doubtful.
"Come on, Diego!" Victoria told him. "Youīre the father of our family; you should be in the picture, too."
"Allright," Diego sighed, and explained to his father what to do. Then he sat down next to Victoria and took little Annarita out of her arms. Felipe leaned on the back of the seat, to have their heads quite close together.
"Fine." Don Alejandro grinned as he threw the black camera-cloth over his head. He felt like a young boy, secretly tinkering with some forbidden equipment. He held up the exploding flashlight high and ordered everyone to smile and hold still. So they sat and waited and smiled, and Diego was just about to ask what the problem was when the bright light exploded, causing the twins to a startled crying.
Don Alejandroīs head popped up from under the black cloth, with his hair tousled and with an excited grin on his face. "Diego! It worked! Now how do we take it out so we can see the picture?"
Quickly Diego laid back Annarita in her motherīs arms and darted forward. "Donīt touch anything, father! It has to be done in the dark, otherwise the picture will be ruined!"
He and Felipe carried the equipment back to the practically darkened cave. And late that evening, before going off to bed, he could present to his father the very first De la Vega family picture.
Don Alejandro was stunned. "But this is magic!" he stammered. "Itīs really you! And Felipe, and Victoria, and the girls... Incredible! So clear, so faithful...!" He looked around the library. "This picture is going to have the place of honour in this house. I want every visitor to see it! My family, captured for posterity!"
Diego grinned. "Now if only I could develop some sort of time-delay for the actual taking of the picture. For you are part of this family, too, father. Perhaps Iīll start experimenting with that tomorrow."
But right now it was time to retire for the night, and with a happy sigh he relaxed in Victoriaīs arms. "You know," he said pensively as his long fingers lovingly traced her jaw, "Iīm almost scared to admit it, but I believe Iīve got everything Iīve ever wanted. Iīve got you, Iīve got two beautiful baby-girls, a great son, the best father in the universe... What did I ever do to deserve such happiness?"
Victoria smiled in the dark and stroked his hair. "Simply by being you, my love. And thatīs what I love most about you. Simply you."
VER THE YEARS that followed the walls of the De la Vega hacienda became covered with pictures. Six more healthy children were born to Diego and Victoria, and apart from them all being uncommonly intelligent, they each inherited a few specific features of their parents which at every display made Don Alejandro smile.
On the outside, the twins were practically identical. Victoria used to tease Diego that these two clearly witnessed about having been conceived by a fox: the reddish, fox-coloured hair they had inherited from their grandmother Doņa Elena made a strange but beautiful contrast with their fatherīs blue eyes. Before they had turned fifteen they were already known as reputed beauties throughout the entire territory, and the worry about their possibly falling into the wrong hands never really left their father in those years.
Another thing they had inherited from him was his brilliant brain. At the age of four, they had figured out by themselves how to read and write, as well as basic arythmatics. Diego and Victoria thought it a shame to have them wait till the usual age before starting their official education, and so a governess was hired. Quick and eager to learn as they were, the governess and every instructor following had a hard time keeping up with their rapid progress, and Victoria was already dreaming about them going to university. Unfortunately, womenīs emancipation had not gotten that far in the 1840īs. Diego enquired with every university throughout Europe and the Americas, but none of them was willing to accept his daughters as students, no matter how bright they were. Victoria was furious, and Diego - in a little less outspoken way - too. In protest, he taught them personally everything he knew, and he made sure to provide them with a competent teacher in any subject they wished to study.
Elena was the leader of the two, and the more quiet Annarita often let her be the one to make the decisions. As long as she agreed with them, that is, for if she did not, she could simply walk away and leave her sister stewing. Elena definitely had inherited the infamous De la Vega temper, but she was also a great lover of horses. She could tame any horse, and loved to go out riding with her father, always picking up new tricks from him on the way. She also had inherited her motherīs sense of business, and together with the man that finally captivated her heart she set up a profitable horse-ranch in northern Mexico, that soon became famous for the excellent horses it bred.
While Elena married a rather patriotic Mexican officer, Annarita preferred the pacifist ideals of her father. Her foremost interest lay in the medical sciences, and she thoroughly studied each and every one of her fatherīs books on that matter. Since going to university was out of the question, Diego arranged for her to become the assistant of the new doctor at Santa Paula, thus giving her the opportunity to continue her education in practice. Dr. De Rosas was a young caballero, recently graduated in the medical sciences from the new university in Mexico City, and the reports on his character, his knowledge and intelligence were highly favourable.
When Diego contacted him, the young man declared that he had no objection to a well-schooled assistant, even if she was female, as he said. However, the fact that his new assistant indeed was female led to a few unforeseen complications. When Diego accompanied his daughter to Santa Paula to introduce her to her new boss, it would have taken a fool to miss the instant shy blush on both his daughterīs and the young doctorīs face. And Diego was definitely not a fool. His protective father-heart would have very much preferred to take his little girl right back home again, but he realized just in time that his īlittle girlī was twenty-one years old and that he could not stop his children from growing up. He would have to have faith in her good sense and in the favourable reports on the new doctor. Still, he instantly planned on many, many trips to Santa Paula in the coming months, just to keep an eye on things.
He neednīt have worried though. Young Don David de Rosas was as much a gentleman as Diego himself. He and Annarita made a perfect medical team, and within two months, David realized there could never be another woman in his life than this smart, gentle and beautiful Annarita de la Vega. In their spare time he started courting her - first in secret, but when he grew more confident, even in public, and the people of Santa Paula smiled as much about their doctorsī romance as Los Angeles once had done about their black heroīs and his beloved taverness. And so, less than a year after he had introduced his īlittle girlī to him, Diego found Dr. De Rosas nervously asking for permission to marry his daughter. It was a very hard decision for him, to let his īlittle girlī go for good and leave her in the care of another man. But everything turned out to be allright, and - after big brother Felipe - they became the first ones to grant Diego and Victoria a couple of grandchildren, making the family picture gallery expand once again.
Young Alejandro, born when the twins were two years old, took greatly after the grandfather he was named after. A warrior, a fighter, always challenging and testing himself, he found himself in many precarious situations over the years. He spent a good deal of his youth learning how to control the infamous De la Vega temper, for he had a great sense of justice and could not see anyone being treated unfairly.
Carolina, born less than a year afterwards, was his secondant. They were even more inseparable than the twins: they did everything together and Carolina grew up as a real tom-boy. With her motherīs round face and her fatherīs blue eyes she had the looks of a little angel, but even though she was really smart, she had a hard time sitting still and studying from a book. She cheered Alejandro on when he got his first fencing-lessons from his father, but when she had talked her brother into teaching her everything Papa taught him and in that process nearly cut out his eye, Diego thought it safer to teach her himself - and then properly. It was one of the few things the girl managed to muster concentration for, and she became as good a fencer as her brother. Still, she was not allowed to follow Alejandro in his dream to join the army - and this time Diego and Victoria were not really sorry about womenīs emancipation not having progressed far enough. Instead, Carolina took over her motherīs tavern, where she had ample opportunities to run around and chat, and very few obligations to sit still. She loved working with people, and especially the older local customers often smiled at her fighting spirit and her wit: she was considered a true daughter of her mother!
Two years later, another son was born: Alfonso. On the outside, he was practically a copy of his uncle Francisco, but his character and interests were much more like his fatherīs. Like his eldest sisters he was exceptionally bright. He loved to read and study, especially the sciences, and after graduating cum laude from the university of Madrid, he simply continued his scientific work and became what Diegoīs studiemates at the time had predicted for him: an internationally acclaimed professor. Alfonso stayed in Europe for the rest of his life, though he had a regular and very good contact with his ever so proud parents in California.
A year and a half after Alfonso was born, Victoria gave birth to another set of twins. Unfortunately the eldest twin died at birth, and Victoria found it very hard at first to love little Mariana, who was born only a few minutes later. But Mariana soon turned out to be the easiest and īsweetestī of all of her children, and therefore easy to love. She was shy, quiet and modest, and loved nothing better than reading. At night however, she could spellbind her family with her wonderful tales. Forgotten was her shyness when her eyes lit up and her mouth spoke those four magical words: "Once upon a time..." Everyone would simply drop whatever they were doing and listen to the magical adventures Mariana made up, about knights dressed all in black, wearing a waving cape and a long sword, or about princesses covered in red roses, or about mean little cobolds in a faraway land under the sun. She never told the same story twice. But once she started writing them down, she became a beloved author, whose books were translated into many languages.
Two years after the tragedy with Marianaīs stillborn twinsister Victoria brought another daughter into the world. She was named Felicidad, a name well worthy of her, for she was a real sunbeam in the house. Wherever she came, whenever people saw her, everyone smiled at the quicksilvery little figure. She had a natural charm with which she easily took in even the grumpiest person in the pueblo, and she was sure to be liked wherever she went. She loved learning languages, and being fluent in French, English, Portuguese and even Russian, she was a great help to new foreign settlers in the area. She even managed to learn a few of the local Indian languages, which greatly benifited the Indians as she gladly served as interpreter and mediator between the government and the local tribes.
Six years later, as a surprise to everyone since Victoria had already reached her forties by then, the youngest De la Vega was conceived. It was a son, Daniel, who was born on his fatherīs birthday. He grew up to be a lover of the arts, and a gifted one, too. He could spend hours with his father painting, or playing the piano together. He was a very friendly boy, with dreamy brown eyes (together with his slender posture the only thing he seemed to have inherited from his mother; the rest of him being a faithful copy of his father) that allured girls to him from the very beginning. By the time he was six, as his eldest sisters had reached a marriageble age, he was the one who came home with a fiancee first: he and one of Felipeīs daughters had pledged their childhood troth to each other. The intrafamily betrothal caused some general merriment, but as Daniel and Maria Rosa outgrew their time of being childhood sweethearts, they maintained their status as a teenage-couple, and when Daniel returned from his art studies in Madrid, one of the first things he did upon his return in California was asking Maria Rosa for her hand in marriage. There was some legal hassle, since - according to the records - they were uncle and niece, but the lawyer Don Felipe managed to straighten that out, pointing out that in fact there was no blood-relation between them at all. Daniel de la Vega became one of the first great musicians and composers of the New World, and travelled all around the Americas and Europe to give recitals.
Don Felipe had left home when he was twenty years old: first to study at the prestigious university of Madrid, but for the second part of his law studies he preferred the newly founded university of Mexico City. After all: it was Mexicoīs law he would have to work with upon his return to California.
Another good thing about studying in Mexico was that he was able to come home for Christmas. He found this very necessary, with new brothers and sisters being born regularly, and them growing up so very fast. And on his first Christmas home from Mexico City, he stunned the entire family by sitting down at the piano, accompanying himself in a Christmas carol. It was the second night of his visit, and he had not yet shared the success of his speaking-lessons with them. His voice had become a warm bariton, and especially those who had known him as a mute all these years felt tears of emotion gathering in their eyes. The poor little orphan boy they had taken in and cared for did not longer exist. He had conquered even his last handicap, promising him a far easier life than what they once had feared for him.
It appeared that indeed he was having an easier time with the ladies, for the year following he brought home a bride. The beautiful Alicia was the daughter of a well-to-do tradesman from Mexico City, and she was received into the De la Vega family with all the love and kindness that family was known for. Only Diego felt some worry and even a slight jealousy towards his first daughter-in-law. But when he noticed how much she cared for īhisī Felipe, he managed to put aside any suspicions he had about her being after his money: it was obvious that she loved Felipe as much as he himself loved Victoria - if such should be possible of course.
However, Don Felipe and his Doņa Alicia īonlyī got four daughters, so after Felipe being a very worthy and generous master of the hacienda, in time that responsibility was passed on to one of his younger brothers. By that time however, young Alejandro had been killed in battle, and Alfonso was all settled in Europe. Therefore the lot befell on Daniel and Felipeīs own daughter Maria Rosa to continue the De la Vega line at the hacienda (making it possible for Zorroīs greatgreatgrandson to resemble Diego de la Vega so much, which otherwise would have been quite impossible).
Grandfather Don Alejandro had the time of his life with so many grandchildren running around the hacienda. He was excessively fond and proud of each and every one of them, and all the time he could spare from leading the pueblo with Mendoza was spent with his grandchildren and greatgrandchildren (Felipeīs children, who were of much the same age as Diegoīs youngest ones).
And sometimes, Don Alejandro just stood watching the wall covered with Diegoīs pictures of his family. It was amazing. He and Elena had started off with only one son. One! And now look at how numerous his family had become! Somewhere, there had to be a logical explanation for this miracle. But he was pretty sure it was not to be found in basic arythmatics; no addition, subtraction, multiplication or division could make 1 + 1 turn into so many...
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