27 November 2011

The Memoirs of Finn O'Brien Villens: Part 6

My 16th Birthday

My first few months at the Chateau flew by. It was as if the entire family had set a schedule for me without regard for the others’ plans. My days were filled with instruction of all kinds. Mornings I learned French, dancing, and etiquette under the tutelage of Phillipe and Julianna. Phillipe also instructed me in Natural Science, although it would be more accurate to say that he spoke at length about some topic or other that had caught his interest and I tried to keep up. Julianna’s mother would call for her before Phillipe’s lecture ended, and I was left struggling to stay awake.

I ate lunch with Theodore in his study. Martin joined us when his duties allowed. While we ate, Theodore talked of government, politics, history, and geography. He firmly believed that the geography of our continent would determine our history. Unlike Phillipe’s lectures, Theodore’s talks drew me in and converted me to his point of view. I diligently  applied myself to learning the incredible variety of lands and waters that shaped our continent. Theodore explained how the Incas were shaped by the mountains and plains, and how the new government slowly forming after the overthrow of the Spanish must conform to the land. When I look at the map fifty years later, and see the states sharing borders with  geographical regions, I see that Theodore’s arguments against a united continental country won the day. 

After lunch, Martin lead me through my physical lessons. He insisted on instructing me himself in the use of the epee, rapier, and saber, although he said that if I keep growing, I’d be better suited for a claymore. Ayala joined us and we three would practice shooting with pistols, carbines, muskets, and rifles. I loved this part of the day.  

My final lessons of the day were with the General. He was determined to teach me to ride like a calvary officer. He explained that your horse isn’t for dashing around the countryside, looking pretty in your fancy uniform. It is a partner in quickly closing on your enemies and killing them. He showed me how to fight from horseback and situations to avoid. Theodore referred to this as training in combat skills. The General called it “learning all the dirty tricks, so you can kill them before they kill you.” 

He and I raced around a field slashing at each other with dull swords. At first I worried about injuring or even killing the old man, but after the first few times he unseated me with blows I never even saw, I stopped worrying about the General’s safety and began to look after my own. In all the months and years he fought me, he never fell. I rarely touched him, and when I did, it was a harmless, glancing blow, that he followed up by clouting me in the chest or on the head. Once, as I was sprawled on the ground and he’d circled back to see if he’d killed me, I asked him how he could still be riding like this in his seventies. He shrugged and said simply, “I am a legend.”

Evenings were my own. I’d eat with the family or in the kitchen if the Doña was out visiting and dinner was informal. I liked eating in the kitchen. It reminded me of meals with my family at Don Valenzuela’s home. After dinner I wandered around the countryside, exploring or searching for plants and birds for Maria. Sometimes I’d play billiards with Martin and Phillipe or cards with Ayala and other soldiers. Occasionally Julianna played the piano and I’d stay and listen. On inclement evenings, I might even be found reading a book. I left Phillipe’s natural history books unopened, favoring instead Theodore’s histories and geographical studies.


24 November 2011

The Memoirs of Finn O'Brien Villens: Part 5


The four days we spent in the hotel were filled with the dull stuff of supplying Maria and I with the material goods needed to enter polite society. Our wardrobes expanded, I chose two sets of pistols, my first sword arrived with a note from Ayala warning me not to play with it until I had some training, and we ate as I had never eaten before. At home, we always had food, plentiful and delicious, but no one would ever use the word “delicacies” in connection with O’Brien cooking. The hotel chef leaned to delicacies and I learned to enjoy them even though I often had no idea what I was eating. With the exception of the food, the supply process proved dull and annoying. Maria grew irritated, complaining that she was being treated like a doll. I grew restless and began to plan my escape. 

On the fifth day, things started happening. Early in the morning, I had managed to slip away from Angelo, Señor Bernard’s assistant, who was driving me mad by fussing over my clothes. I was required to dress and undress repeatedly as the fit was adjusted. He had brought a small stool upon which I was required to stand for what felt like hours while he adjusted a seam or added a silver button. When Angelo wandered off to find scissors, or one of the thousand other tiny tools he’d brought with him, I slipped out of the room.  I swiftly darted down the stairs, crossed the lobby, and ran out into the street. It was the first time I’d been outside my rooms alone since we arrived and the freedom was intoxicating. I was dressed, Mr. Bernard assured me, as a son of a prosperous business man. I felt like a damned silly, flouncing fool, but at least I was a free fool. I walked a little way down the road, just past the hotel, to the mouth of a small alley. I peeked into the alley and heard laughter and talk, so I decided to investigate. I was in the mood for fun.

The alley led to the rear of the hotel. When I turned the corner, I saw two maids and a couple of rough looking guys. The guys were eating sandwiches that the maids must’ve smuggled from the kitchen. Open bottles of beer stood at their feet. When the girls saw me, they panicked and ran back inside. The fellows called after them, then turned their attention on me. They quickly measured me with appraising eyes and decided that the son of a prosperous business man must carry a heavy purse.

The two split up and approached me from either side in approved stalking mode. From their grins it was clear they thought I was an easy mark. “Didn’t your mother warn you about dark alleys, little boy?,” The talkative one said.

The other was more to the point. “Give us your purse and you might keep your clothes,” he muttered darkly.

I smiled, which slowed them a bit. They expected me to run, but I knew better than to run from wolves. I wasn’t too worried though. These wolves looked like they’ve seen better days. More likely, they’d never had better days. Ragged was as good as they would ever get.

I patted my pockets and exclaimed somewhat theatrically, “Damn! I have left my new pistols in my room.”

“Too bad boy,” said the talker. “‘Cause we’ve got these.” The thugs pulled kitchen knives honed to a fine point out of their pockets. No doubt the girls had stolen them from the hotel as well. They held the knives at their waists, points upwards, and fixed their eyes on me. They probably expected me to bolt anytime. I had different plans. 

“Well, well,” I said, “knives. That’s a different story!” I reached under my knee length tunic and slid my long knife from its sheath laced to my thigh while with my left hand I drew the heavy blade from my boot. “I have knives,” I said, grinning maniacally.

The dogs stopped in their tracks. They each seemed to be waiting for the other to start. The quieter one looked down at his kitchen knife and frowned. All the frustration built up during these days of being bullied and pestered by Mr. Bernard’s assistants flowed through me. I’m not proud of it, but there are times when I dearly love a fight. I grew tired of waiting for them to attack, so I did.

I took two quick steps to my left and swept my long dagger at the loudmouth thug’s throat. He leapt backwards, swearing. The other tried to close in on me, but he didn’t realize that I was setting him up with my initial feint. When he tried to close on my blindside, I spun away from him, and flashed out with the short, heavy blade. He wasn’t ready for my attack.  I stopped the knife just shy of his throat. He dropped his blade and begged me not to kill him. I had no intention of killing him, but I did deliver a solid kick that made him unlikely to father a child any time soon.

The loudmouth, his larger partner down, turned and ran down the alley. I thought about chasing him, but a dark figure detached itself from the shadows and smashed the loudmouth with the cage of his sword hilt. The men was knocked off his feet. A second figure stepped from the shadows and dragged the unconscious man into the deeper shadows of the alley. The figures were much more threatening than the two thugs had ever been. I did not wait to see what their intentions were. I ran back through the alley and out into the street. Before stepping out into the daylight, I sheathed my knives. It turned out this was a bad idea.

Once I was clear of the alley, I walked down the street, straightening my clothes and brushing off dirt. I didn’t pay attention to the clatter of a carriage closing in on me. The carriage slowed to a walk right behind me and, in a carefully orchestrated attack, my arms were pinned behind me, the carriage door was opened, and I was tossed inside. A large man followed me into the carriage. He effortlessly grabbed me and tossed me onto the bench. No words were spoken. No false bravado here. It was a thoroughly professional kidnapping.

An older man sat across from me, a pistol aimed at my chest. He banged on the roof of the carriage with a silver handled cane and the carriage jerked into motion. The big man who had been throwing me around removed the knife from its thigh sheath and dropped it in a brown leather bag at his feet. The older man leaned back into his bench and stared at me, his pistol now aimed at my head.

We only got a short way when I saw the troops appear on either side of the carriage. The old man was staring out of the window and the big man leaned forward and was fumbling with the leather case. With speed fueled by fear, I ripped the short knife from my boot and slammed it between the strong man’s shoulder blades. He felt to the floor, desperately pawing at the knife. Then the carriage brakes slammed against the wheels. The older man was thrown toward me. I dove to the side as his pistol discharged, its flash blinding me, the powder burning my cheek.  The older man fell against me. Grabbing for his shoulders, I turned toward him and snapped my head forward. I felt my forehead slam into this face and flatten his nose. The old man screamed and fell backwards, slamming against his bench and bouncing back at me. I shoved him onto the big man and climbed over them both. By now my sight was returning, and I kicked open the door, and hurled myself from the carriage.

I hit the street, and rolled to a stop against a building. I tried to stand, but my body wasn’t working right and my legs folded up under me. I tried again, but this time a strong hand grabbed me under my arm and dragged me onto the back of a horse. “Hang on,” yelled Ayala, his booming voice cutting through the fog that surrounded me. Before long, I was back at the hotel and two troopers were helping me down from the horse. 

They carried me to my room and laid me on the bed. Ayala and Maria washed the blood off my face. Maria asked why I was covered in blood when she could only find a small cut above my eye. “Broken noses bleed something awful.” I struggled to get out the words.

“But your nose isn’t broken,” she said.

“I didn’t say it was my nose,” I whispered and Ayala let out a huge roar of laughter. 

 Before long a doctor arrived and began checking me for injuries. I tried to speak, to ask questions, but talking was difficult. Ayala assured me that things were fine. One of the men in the carriage was dead, the other three were captured.  Before long, they would tell the troopers who sent them.  “The one with the broken nose said the boy’s a demon,” Ayala said addressing his words to Maria. “I told him to avoid fighting Irishmen. They don’t fight fair.”

He also told me that he had the two thugs who pulled knives on me in the alley. Maria’s head snapped towards Ayala. It was clear even to me in my muddled state that this was the first she heard of the fight in the alley.

“Was that you in the alley?” I asked.

“It was,” he said. “Also Sgt. Lopez.”

“And you let them attack me?” I asked.

“They were fools,” he said dismissively. “Besides I needed to see how you handled yourself.”

“Two men attacked Finn and you watched?,” asked Maria in amazement.

Ayala shrugged, “They needed more help than Finn did.” Maria glared at Ayala, who met her eyes with calm indifference.

A message arrived about an hour later. Villens would meet us at the address on the card. Ayala knew the address and told the manager to have a carriage waiting in thirty minutes. Maria was excused and the doctor cleaned and bandaged my injuries, mostly scratches and bruises. The doctor inspected my self-inflicted thigh wound, but I refused to answer his questions about it.

In a half hour, I was dressed in fresh clothes and clean bandages, sitting across from Maria and next to Ayala as the carriage rattled down the King’s Highway toward Puerto Seguro. Ayala’s pistols were in the pockets of my jacket. The gunsmith was still tinkering with mine. I leaned out of the window and saw a dozen troopers, surrounding the carriage. I asked Ayala where we were going, but he would not say. I had never seen him so tense. At one point he muttered something about being on top, not riding inside like some damn, fool aristocrat. If anyone was planning on attacking us, the dozen carbineers discouraged them. I think they should have been worried about the Ayala, who was furious that I had nearly been kidnapped when he was guarding me.

We arrived at our destination after a journey of several hours. The carriage and troops passed through a heavy gate which was swung shut and bolted behind us. We followed a circular gravel drive to the front of the tall brick house of Spanish style. Liveried footman opened the carriage doors and assisted us to the ground. We climbed the marble steps and a butler met us at the door. He lead us to a large library, then informed us that Doña de la Vega was unfortunately occupied with delicate matters. She would be with us as soon as she was able. The butler stepped out of the room and soon two maids arrived with trays of cold meat, bowls of fruit, and drinks. The butler soon returned with wine.

Maria wasn’t hungry and turned her attention to the library books. She made noises of approval as she muttered names of authors that meant nothing to me, save for Cervantes. Ayala and I ate heartily, while he retold, with ample embellishments honesty requires me to admit, my adventures in the alley. After the number of my attackers had risen to an even dozen, Maria dryly commented that soon I will have defeated Napoleon’s entire Imperial guard armed only with a pointed stick. Ayala insisted that Maria would not talk in such a manner had she seen me in action. I ate and enjoyed the exchange, while remembering to remain suitably modest. Maria mentioned something about the kidnapping and the memory of killing the big man ended all my sense of adventure.

When Ayala took a break from entertaining us to enjoy the claret and figs, I took advantage of the opening in the conversation to ask Maria why Doña de la Vega was in Puerto Seguro and why we were in her house waiting to see her. Maria returned the book she was studying to the shelf and walked over to me.  She motioned that I should join her on the sofa. I carried my plate, still piled high with meat, cheese, and fruit, and placed it on a small table. I asked Maria if I could get anything for her. She asked for a glass of wine. When I returned, she sipped the rich red liquid and sighed. “As far as I can understand all this, we are in trouble and Doña de la Vega wants to help. You probably are aware of all the difficulties I had with her son, Cupido,” she began. I nodded. Cupido and Maria had been a constant topic of conversation while I was a boy. “On the day of the ambush of Gen. Morales, I went to Doña de la Vega in an attempt to prevent the slaughter. She and Morales are related by marriage and I had hoped that she could do something to warn the troops. Cupido was at the center of the plot to the place Morales on the throne or whatever the ruler of this new country of ours sits upon. Who knows, maybe he thought that if he were a high-ranking officer in the Army of the new country, I would relent and marry him. His behavior had become so erratic, anything is possible. Of course, the ambush ended all those hopes and his life as well.”

“The events of that awful day and the weeks that Doña de la Vega spent at my father’s house nursing Cupido and easing his last days, brought us together. My mother died quite young and I came to appreciate the sagacity and wit of the Doña. I look at her as a wise aunt, an experienced woman who has my interests at heart. That said, I didn’t know of this house, nor did I have any expectation that we would be waiting to see her. From the way that Ayala and his troops hurried us here after the attack on you, I can only assume that we are here for our protection. I believe that there must have been many conversations about you and I that we have not privy to.” Maria looked at Ayala for confirmation of her suspicions. Ayala held up a finger, hurriedly chewing and swallowing the cold pheasant he been systematically working through. He took a long drink of wine and cleared his throat before addressing Maria.

“I think it best if we wait for Doña de la Vega,” he said.

Maria did not look satisfied, but as Ayala returned to his assault on the pheasant, the pointlessness of further questions became obvious. Maria ate some of the fruit from my plate and sat lost in her own thoughts among the books and paintings of the grand library. After a while, Ayala left the room to check on the soldiers. 

The door opened and we expected Ayala to return, but instead Doña de la Vega swept into the room. Maria and I rose to our feet and Doña  de la Vega embraced Maria and kissed her on the cheek. The Doña shook my hand and greeted me then she waved us into our chairs. We talked for a while about this and that, nothing really important, nothing touching why we were there. Then Ayala returned and led me outside. That was the last time I saw Maria for several months. She did however send me several letters to keep me informed and to check on me.

Before I go into how Maria and I spent the next few months, I want to explain something, just in case I haven’t made it clear. Villens would have married Maria the first day we left the woods and set foot on his family’s grounds, but his family was a different matter. Maria felt the same way. Unfortunately, many influential families with marriageable daughters and calculating parents wanted an attachment to the Villens family. While they both wanted their son to marry a worthy woman, Martin’s parents had their own concerns. Theodore was concerned about the current volatile political situation. The revolution led by the Rojas family was an incomplete and rather sloppy act. He would like his see his family tied to one of the eight great families by marriage to help him shape the events of the near future.

Doña Villens’ thoughts were elsewhere. She wanted her son’s marriage to raise their family to the upper realm of society. They currently had access to that lofty position through their military role, but she wanted full access. Since Martin had turned twenty, his mother had been making arrangements with other socially prominent women to bring a small army of marriageable women into contact with Martin. Every leading family with an eligible daughter had spent long visits at the Chateau Villens. The general once requested that the printed menus for the formal dinners that accompanied these visits include the name of the intended betrothed so that he could keep the names straight. While Maria came from an old and honored family, the Valenzuelas had fallen on hard times several generations back and had not regained their former status.

Martin adored his mother and so was blind to her faults. He had cheerfully endured the efforts of a large portion of society to led him to the altar. His father generally stayed out of these machinations, however he did point out how attractive the daughters of several political powerful families were. When Martin asked his father how to choose a wife, his father told him to carefully evaluate what he wanted in a wife and then throughly examine all the available women to find the best match. Martin was struck at how different this advice was from the story of how his father met his mother, but he thought too highly of his father to point this out. When Martin asked his grandfather about choosing a wife, his grandfather offered to pay his way to Paris where Martin was to seduce the most beautiful woman he could find and then whisk her away to the New World one step ahead of her father, brothers, and fiancee. “You want two things in a wife,” the General concluded. “A great passion and a great story.” 

Maria spent the next several months becoming established in the de la  Vega home and in society. Maria was taken to visit prominent citizens. The de la Vega house became the center of social activity. The prominence of Doña de la Vega along with the sparkling wit and beauty of Maria attracted the important members of Puerto Seguro society. Members of all the important families soon found their way to the Doña’s home. The Doña and Maria would also visit the great houses in the nearby areas. Soon Maria’s charms, intelligence, and beauty established her as a prominent social figure.

A room off of the library was turned into a study for Maria. Arrangements were made to bring her books, specimens, and equipment from Don Valenzuela’s home. Once the new study was established, Maria began to attract members of various philosophical societies that were springing up around Puerto Seguro. It was rumored that several elderly naturalists were so taken by her study of comparative anatomy that they offered to marry her, but Maria managed to put them off without insulting them. Julianna and Phillipe Villens became regular visitors. Julianna was barely in her teens, but she admired the taste and sensitivity of Maria and Doña de la Vega, while Phillipe was thrilled to have access to Maria’s scientific studies.

Considering their places in society, it’s not surprising that Doña Angelica de la Vega and Doña Mathilda Villens were old friends. They had been in each other’s wedding party, and often visited each other’s home. After Maria had become established in the social world of Puerto Seguro, and word of her qualities had time to drift back to Donña Villens, Doña de la Vega arranged for a small dinner party at her home to which the Villens family was invited.

While Maria was becoming a familiar sight in society, I was getting to know the Villens family. The day that I was separated from Maria, Ayala took me to the Château. Martin greeted us there and I was amazed at how different he looked. When he had lived with us, Villens had a air of shabby nobility about him. The nobility remained, but the shabbiness was long gone. He had returned to his uniform, and the commanding presence I’d seen once or twice was now a permanent, natural feature. He greeted me warmly and asked after Maria. I told him what little I knew at the time, and he assured me that she would be fine. He seemed quite confident that Maria would be taken care of properly. Apparently he, his parents, and Doña de la Vega had been involved in many discussions about Maria and myself.

I’m not sure why I did what I did next. I think perhaps I was just tired of all these people having discussions about my life without bothering to include me. What I did was this. I told Villens that he may have returned to the cavalry, but I had not joined. He looked dandy in his new uniform, but I didn’t feel like saluting. I wanted to know right now what all these plans are about me. Then I would decide whether I was staying or whether I was going home. I’d gotten there on my own two feet, and I could get back the same way.

Villens looked surprised and then a little hurt. His eyes narrowed as he examined my face.  I stared back unblinking.“Perhaps I should have a word with the boy,” said a voice from behind me. I whirled around and saw an old man in the fanciest uniform I’d ever seen. He was tall and thin, and even so, the large chair he was sitting in threatened to swallow him. The old man waved the others out of the room and gestured for me to sit next to him. When we were alone, the old man introduced himself as General Lucien Villens, Theodore’s grandfather. I rose and shook his hand. He asked me to come outside with him.

As we walked through the corridors of the great house, the General asked me to tell him about the journey from my home to his. I told him about the time that Maria, Martin, and I had spent together. He wanted to know about the events before I caught up to the others. I asked him why he wanted to know about things that didn’t concern him. “I understand that you saved my Grandson’s life,” said the General. “That concerns me, don’t you think?”

I had to agree, but I told the old man that I didn’t enjoy talking about that night. “I would like to know what happened,” the General said softly. “In your own words. It’s important to me. You say you are tired of people talking about you, well, here is your chance to start talking about yourself.”

“You’re still telling me what I should I talk about,” I said.

The General laughed and slapped me solidly on the back. “I guess so,” he replied. “Tell you what. You tell me what I want to know then you can ask me questions. Is that fair?”

I nodded and told him about hunting the men in the forest. I was careful to give credit to my father and to describe my actions without exaggeration. He asked me how I felt, and I told him that I was scared at times, and at other times I had no feelings, I just reacted. He asked me why I didn’t shoot the men. I told him that I didn’t know where they all were and I didn’t want to give myself away. He wanted to know why I didn’t use a knife. I explained that I didn’t plan my attacks, I just wanted the men stopped. “‘Stopped,’” he said slowly. “Not killed.”

I thought for a minute. “No, I wanted them dead,” I said. “I knew that if the men weren’t killed, Maria and Martin, would be.” 

“And so would you have been,” said the General studying me closely.

I laughed. “Those city boys never would have come close to me in the woods,” I replied. “Besides, I had the Baker rifle. If they trapped me somehow, I would have picked them off one by one before they reached me.

“You killed one of the kidnappers with a knife,” said the General. 

“I did,” I said matter-of-factly.

“Why? What was different?” he asked.

“I had already been threatened in the alley. I suppose you’ve heard of that?”

“Yes, Ayala reports that you handled yourself well.”

“Better than he did,” I answered and the General couldn’t repress a smile.

“But the carriage was different. The man I killed was stronger than me. He’d tossed me into the carriage like I was a rag doll. The older man in the carriage held a pistol on me, but I was worried about the big man. I knew there was a driver, but there could have others on top of the carriage. I also was worried that the carriage was taking me away from the hotel and I had promised to protect Maria. All that swirled through my head, so when the chance came to escape, I took it.”

The General and I walked in silence for awhile.  “And you are fifteen?” he asked. “You look quite fit.”

“And you are eighty,” I said. “You also look quite fit.”

The General laughed so long and hard he had to sit and catch his breath. “I am seventy-eight,” he said, “and I am a legend. But then, legends have to be fifteen sometimes.” I have never received a compliment that meant more to me, although it would take years before I realized what the General meant or I began to earn it.

We walked through a heavy oak door and entered the gunroom. “Enough stories,” he said. “Finn, my boy, I would like you to demonstrate this new rifle.” And so I did. He gave me targets to hit and I hit them. The most distant target was a rock on a fence about seven hundred yards or so away. The rock was the size of a coconut. I knocked it off the fence. I told the general that with a little practice, I could stretch the distance a little further. 

He said that he had heard that Napoleon rejected the rifles because the were slow to load. I said that I wasn’t a good person to demonstrate speed, because I hadn’t used the rifle in battle. I wasn’t trained to load quickly, but I’d heard of British troops that could fire three rounds in five minutes. While I cleaned the rifle, the General returned my knives to me. Ayala had brought them to the chateau from the carriage where I had one taken from me and I’d left one in the strong man’s back. The general admired my father’s work.

We sat outside the gunroom, he in a campaign chair he kept stashed behind the door and me on the grass. “Thank you for the demonstration, Finn,” the General said. 

“Is it my turn to ask questions now?” I replied.

“Go ahead,” he said.

“Why can’t Martin and Maria get married?” I asked.

He explained about politics and about the rules of society. “You have to understand, Finn. The great families of this country think that we are still in Medieval times. To them, everything is King and land. Napoleon has unseated the King and Eduardo O’Brien is going to teach them that land is not enough. My family, that is my son and grandson, understand that the world has changed. We are entering a time of great men, Washington and Napoleon, for example. There will be men like them here. Martin and Theodore want this land to become a republic like the United States. Eduardo O’Brien wants to serve Napoleon, or someone like him. Rojas is no Napoleon. He should watch O’Brien closely, for if O’Brien finds a Napoleon here, he will ally himself with this Napoleon and destroy the Rojas family in a heartbeat.”

“So for now, Martin’s marriage must be carefully arranged. There are those in the great families who want to be allied with us. We are the dominant military family. The Army is loyal to the Villens family. As I said, these families are Medieval and they see marriage as the best way to tie families together. Don Valenzula is a good man from a good family, but he is not in the same element of society as the other families. We must negotiate carefully with the leading families, so that they will not be offended when Martin marries Maria. When those things are done, Martin and Donna Maria will marry, not before. From what I hear of her from Martin, the young lady is a unique prize for a young man. I look forward to meeting her.”

Finn thought about all this for awhile and then set it aside. He knew he’d have to discuss these things with Martin, as he was coming to think of him. “What about me?” asked Finn. “When can I go home?”

“Ah, yes, well that’s difficult to say,” said the General. “When Martin and Maria fled from your home, Don Valenzuela sent a message to Theodore via Donña de la Vega. He wrote us about their flight so that we would search for them and help them. We sent troops to the south, never expecting that they would loop around to the north. Don Valenzuela added that you might be with them and asked as a personal favor to him if we would take you under our protection. He was concerned that your cousin Eduardo might strike out at you if you got in his way. A very perceptive man is Don Valenzula.”

“What did he mean ‘take me under your protection,’” I asked.

“He means that we should keep you safe and treat you well. We haven’t been doing a great job of keeping you safe, but you’ve done well for yourself. Lt. Ayala has spoken to me about you and asked to be allowed to continue to act as your bodyguard. It’s up to you.”

“I would be pleased to spend time with Lt. Ayala, but what about Maria?” I asked.

“We don’t think that she is in danger,” said the General. “O’Brien is married, and shows no further interest in her. He seems to strike out at those who protect her or who want to marry her. Martin is safe here. Any action against him would bring down the army on Eduardo and Rojas. We have made that clear to Rojas. He commands some troops, but we could raise a much larger force if Martin as attacked. As for Ayala, after that attempted kidnapping, he was all for driving the carriage to Eduardo’s doorstep with the corpses of all four of O’Brien’s men inside. As it was, we escorted the carriage to the capitol with the man you killed and the other three men inside. The others were a little worse for wear, what with you breaking one’s nose, and Ayala talking severely to the others. I trust that the  your cousin got the message to stop his attacks. If he has not, we will take action.”

“For the time being, we think that you would be best served to stay with us. We don’t know how your cousin Eduardo will respond to his failed efforts. He has lost six men. You will be safe here and there is plenty to keep a young man busy. If you would like, I would be pleased to see to your training as an officer. In a few years, perhaps you would like to join us.”

“In the meantime, as you are the only one here who is familiar with the Baker rifle, perhaps you can help Lt. Ayala form a squad of Light Infantry. Arrangements have been made with the British to supply us with a quantity of Baker rifles and munitions. They would like allies in case Napoleon attempts to establish his rule here. You have to understand that warfare here in South America is not like it is Europe. There are vast areas of land here and few people. Few Europeans, that is, for that is who is fighting these days. What we need are fast moving infantry to complement our already superior cavalry.”

“We must also teach you the ways of a gentleman. Your knives are excellent, but you must learn to use a sword. Stand up, boy, and turn around,” he ordered. I did as he said. “You are going to a large man. Forget about the epee or rapier. You will have a sabre. You would probably snap an epee in two.”

“You must also learn to dance and ride. And perhaps we can brush up your social skills a bit. Teach you to speak properly to a young woman. To either be witty or proficient enough with pistols and the sword that others will not practice their wit on you.  But most importantly, we must teach you how to avoid brawling in alleys. I have a feeling that you’ll have your hands full dueling.”

“So, what do think of all that, Finn? Would you like to stay with us and get started?”

I told the General I’d like to think about his offer. He suggested that he, Martin, Theodore, and I meet after dinner to discuss the matter. At dinner, I was seated across from Martin’s younger sister, Julianna. She was just entering her adolescence, and at times she would turn head a certain way and I could see glimmers of the beauty that she would become. I did not speak to her, but I listened to her conversation and enjoyed her lively wit and intelligence. 

After dinner, the four of us retired to the General’s library and before anyone could speak, I told them that I would gladly accept their offer. Martin jumped from his seat and slapped me on the back. His father rose sedately and shook my hand. The General poured a glass of Port for me, grinned saying, “Well, gentlemen. Let's see what we can make of this promising young man.”

12 August 2011

The Memoirs of Finn O'Brien Villens: Part 4


The last day we spent on the rock road, the previously straight path began to curve sharply back on itself, twisting first to the south and then to the east before stopping abruptly. At the end of the road the forest was as thick as any I’ve seen. Great trees towered overhead and pressed in  around us. The last standing stone was several inches from level as if the giant trees were forcing thick roots under the stone to overturn the great slab. An unbroken stand of these huge trees surrounded the terminus of the rock road blocking the view. Realizing that we’d come to the end of our easy traveling, we walked several hundred yards back to where we’d seen the last stairway down to the forest floor.

For the first time on our travels, the stairs were damaged and we climbed down with some difficulty. Several of the stone slabs were split and saplings had grown in the cracks. The branches filled the narrow stairwells, grabbing at our clothes, and scratching out arms and faces. The mule was so angered by a thorny sapling blocking his way that he trampled it. He was badly cut up on his head and chest. When we reached the bottom, we stopped and pulled dozens of thorns from his matted coat and washed his wounds.

With only a dim light filtering though the canopy on intertwined branches high above us, we lost our sense of time. Exhausted by the difficulty of moving through the thick undergrowth and thinking that night was almost upon us, we’d about decided that we’d have to spend the night in the forest. We were looking for a place to camp near water, when we forced our way through a mass of grapevines that had grown over shrubs and into the trees. Once clear of the wall of vines, we saw that the forest thinned just a little way ahead. The thought of leaving the oppressive woods lifted our spirits and we nearly ran toward the sunlight. In five minutes, we were clear of the forest altogether. We were probably a hundred yards or so from the edge of the forest when we nearly stopped for the night.

To our amazement, it was only late afternoon when we left the forest behind. We found ourselves on a low, grassy hillock. Rolling hills stretched out before us. In the distance, between two taller hills, we could see a patch of bluish-green different that the grass all around us. Villens excitedly pointed and explained that it was the sea. “This means that we are on Villens’ land,” he explained. I stared at the small patch of color. I’d never seen the Atlantic Ocean, and I expected my first view to more impressive.  Villens must have seen my face and read my disappointment for he patted my on the back and said, “Finn, the ocean is at least twenty miles from here. You’ll get a much better look before long.”

Energized by the realization that he was nearly home, Villens dropped his pack and gun and ran a short way to a higher point. Maria and I scooped up Villens’ things and gave chase, laughing and yelling at him to wait. The mule followed but refused to run, still unhappy about the thorn tree and thick undergrowth. Mules do not quickly forget. 

When we caught up to him, Villens pointed to the east and say simply, “There.”  A large stone house stood by a road several miles from our vantage place. The building had a thick center, nearly square, with two long wings set at right angles from the center. The roof was dull gray, as was the stone. The windows were narrow and round towers capped with peaked roofs stood at the corners. It was difficult to make out from were we stood, but it appeared as if a large gate was set into the front of house. “Villens lives in castle,” I thought. It was the largest home I’d ever seen, larger even than Don Hernando’s hacienda.

“Is that your home?” asked Maria, her normally confident tone a little shaky.

Villens looks surprised and answered, “No, no. That is the guard house. It houses my father’s personal troops and his officers. Can you make out those two long, narrow buildings in the rear?” We nodded to show we could. “Those are the stables. On the other side of that low hill is the riding arena where the horses are trained.”

I could’t judge the length of the stables very well, we were too far away, and before I could ask, Maria said, “How many horses are stabled there?”

“As many a hundred,” answered Villens. “That is were the officers and my fathers troops keep their horses. My family’s horses are kept our stables at the chateau.”

“The chateau?,”  asked Maria.

“Where my family lives,” answered Villens. It’s just over that ridge between the guardhouse and the sea. It is a copy of a chateau were my grandfather and grandmother found refuge on their flight to Spain. My grandfather built it for her so that she wouldn’t become homesick for France. We should be able to see it from the next hill.” And so we hurried on. Villens’ excitement lifted us all and we dashed away like children running for the sheer joy of speed. 

We reached the next hilltop in about twenty minutes. We stopped before the crest to catch our breath. It’s a good thing we did, for when we reached the top what we saw took our breath away. Below us, and half way up the next hill, was the Villens chateau. I stood and gaped, utterly speechless. Villens was describing the house, the gardens, the decor, but I am not going to pretend at this late date that I remember what he said. Indeed, I couldn’t have told you at the time what he was saying. I was thunderstruck at the scale and beauty of the building stretched out before me. I had first thought that Villens lived in a castle, only to discover he lived a palace.

I was brought back to awareness by Maria repeating my name in a calm, but firm voice. “Wait here, please, Finn,” she said. “I need to speak privately with Villens for a bit. Sit and rest. We may be a while.” They walked down hill out of sight and I sat to rest and stare at the magnificent building. I couldn’t say how long Maria and Villens were gone, but when they returned we turned around and walked with a definite sense of purpose, as if something had been decided.

Villens broke the silence and told me that there was a hôtel not far down the road from the guard house. The road was the Kings Highway and it went to Puerto Seguro, about twenty miles down the coast. We were going to the guard house and from there Maria and I would be taken to the hotel. He would go to his house.  The mule would be stabled with the regiment’s mules. 

Maria had walked on ahead while Villens was talking to me. He glanced at her to make sure that he could speak to me privately, then gripped my forearm tightly. He turned me around so that we were facing one another. “Finn, I do not want to leave Maria, but she insists. It is complicated. I will be gone for four or five days. You must stay with her. You must protect her. Your rifle will be useless, so I will take it and keep it safe. Keep your knives with you. I will send you pistols, powder, and shot. I want you and Maria to carry pistols at all times. Do you understand?”

His voice had started out in his usual light tone and ended with the commanding voice I’d first heard when he interrogated Aubusson. “Yes,” I answered. It was all I could think to say. I thought we’d put danger behind us, but Villens thought differently.

Maria glanced over her shoulder and noticed Villens and I talking. She walked back and Villens started to walk away. She reached out as he passed and slid her arm in his, gently guiding him back to where I stood. “Finn,” she said, “after all you’ve done for us and all we’ve been through together, you have a right to know what is happening, but I must ask you to keep these matters between the three of us.” I agreed instantly. She smiled a slight smile that said she knew that I could be counted on. “Martin has asked me to marry him and I have accepted. This is, of course, not the usual way of doing these things, and we are not certain if his family will accept the idea. My father will be overjoyed, I suspect you know.” I laughed. Don Hernando had wanted his daughter married for years and he thought the world of Villens. I kissed Maria’s cheek and shook Villens hand so wildly he rubbed he shoulder in mock pain.
“You know that I not a vain woman, Finn,” Maria continued, “but I am not foolish one, either. I will not be seen by my future mother-in-law and her friends in my present bedraggled state. If the great beauty that is Villens’ mother saw me in these torn and filthy pants, cotton field shirt, heavy boots muddied and torn, my hair unwashed and pulled back into this single braid like a peasant, she would think that her son had gone mad and wanted to marry a fellow escapee from an asylum.”

“But you are beautiful, Maria,” I said full of impassioned earnestness. “I’m sure you are more beautiful than any Villens woman.” I had risen to Maria’s defense reflexively, and was a little embarrassed to spoken so passionately. Villens smiled at my defense of his fiancee, and Maria ran her hand lightly down my cheek. 

“Thank you for that, my champion,” she said. “I am not interested in competing with any woman, but I am interested in looking my best. If I can do so, things will work themselves out.” Threaded her arm through mine, and said, “We must go to the hôtel,” she said. “A hot bath, clean clothes, a fine meal, good wine, and clean sheets on soft beds.” We all laughed in giddy anticipation of these pleasures after all our hardships.  “And then we will see if under all this filth is a woman worthy of a chapter in the Villens family history.”


The many days we’d spent in the woods had begun tense and fearful, but had settled into a trying, but regular routine. I was at home in the woods and understood the dangers. All that familiarity ended when Maria, Villens, and I neared the guardhouse. I was there thrust into a world with unknown rules and unseen dangers. The comforts and ease hid silken snares, but snares none the less. If you had told me that this strange world would become my home, the place I would meet and marry my Julianna, where our children would be born, I would have thought you were a lunatic. Had I not promised to stay with Maria, I would have slipped out of the Hôtel Rodriguez that first night, and returned to home, Cousin Eduardo be damned. But I must return to the events as they happened or none of this will make sense to any reader. Let me leave my midnight thoughts and return to the earlier in the day when we three weary travelers reached the guardhouse.

We made a strange sight, I’m sure, as we trod wearily up the road to the sentry box that stands in front of the guardhouse. Villens and I had our weapons slung over a shoulder. Our clothes were caked in dirt, torn and patched. Maria was dressed as a man in her specimen hunting outfit, and was similarly dirty and disheveled. A mule followed us, its coat matted and muddy, tattered bundles lashed to its back. When Villens, looking like a scarecrow but walking and talking like an officer, demanded that the sentry go and find Captain Olivera, the guard hesitated, unsure how to reconcile Villens appearance and his manner. 

Before any unfortunate words or actions could be exchanged, an officer thundered over and pulled his horse to sudden stop directly in front of us. While the horse was still scrambling about to get his feet under him, the rider leapt from the saddle and raced over to Villens. Before Villens could react, the man grabbed him and lifted him off the ground. “Martin! Martin! It is you. I thought that was you under half the dirt in the country,” the officer bellowed, bouncing Villens as if were a small child. The officer was a half a head shorter than Villens, but heavily built, with sturdy thighs, a deep chest, and broad shoulders. His square head sat on his shoulders without the benefit of a neck. His brow was heavy and jutted out over his small, dark eyes. A thick, carefully trimmed mustache draped over his wide mouth which was curved into a broad smile.  

The officer finally released Villens, who stumbled backwards and almost fell. Struggling to catch his breath, Villens managed to gasp, “Luis Ayala, you crazy, wild bull, has no one killed you yet?”
Lieutenant Ayala’s smile improbably widened. “They try,” he said, “but I don’t make it easy.” The men laughed and I had feeling that this was a ritualized greeting between the two. 
Maria and I stood by and waited to be introduced. Finally, Ayala noticed us and asked Villens, “Why have you brought these peasants with you?” 

Maria stiffened and I considered knocking him down until I realized that he had sword and probably wouldn’t need it to kill me. His bare hands would suffice. Villens stepped forward and assumed a military posture. He spoke in a cold, official tone that rang like a hammer on steel. “Lieutentant Luis Ayala, I demand that you apologize to Señora Maria Beatriz Venazuela y Montoya. She is special friend of mine and is under my protection. The young man is Finn O’Brien, a superior fellow whom I am proud to call my friend. We owe him our lives.”

Lieutenant Ayala’s expressive face collapsed. He was so obviously upset that I started to speak, to reassure him that we were not offended, but Villens caught my eye and gave a short, sharp shake of his head. Ayala gathered himself and, sweeping his hat from his leonine head, bowed low to Maria. “Señora Valenzuela y Montoya,” he began in a humble tone, “I am Lieutenant Luis Ayala y Cruz. I can never apologize enough for my thoughtless error. I was never my intention to offend a lady such as yourself, such a lovely pearl. I can only say that in my pleasure over my good friend safety, I was blind to the your obvious refinement. I beg your forgiveness, and from this day on you have Luis Ayala as your loyal servant.”

Maria smiled at the man, touched by the sincerity of his embarrassment. As the Lieutenant has still bowed low before her, she said, “Rise, Lieutentant Ayala, I take no offense. You are seeing Finn and I for the first time, and we are a frightening sight to see. You are very kind to compare me to a pearl, but in my present state I feel more like an oyster. Take my hand. I am certain that we shall be fast friends.” They shook hands and then Ayala turned to me. 

He drew his sword, snapped to attention, and saluted me. “Señor O’Brien,”  he began, “I ask you forgiveness for my unintended slight. Such a mistake brings much dishonor onto me. I assure before all who heard my comment that I meant no insult to you. Will you accept my apology and my friendship?”
I didn’t know what was the proper response to Ayala apology. I already liked the man and wanted to just laugh the whole thing off, but he was genuinely upset. I fumbled around for the right words, gave up, and settled for the first thing that came to mind. “I was not offended, sir, I have to admit I’ve been away from a bathtub for far too long.”

Ayala’s huge smile returned, his eyes sparkled, and he roared in laughter. The next thing I knew he was crushing me in a bear hug and bouncing me as he’d had Villens. When he released me I took a deep gulp of air and discretely checked for broken ribs. Ayala spread his arms widely and I thought for a minute that he was going to lift all three of us, but instead he bellowed, “Now that we are friends, you must all come inside and tell me of you adventures. I will get food and drink and many of your friends, Martin, will join us.”

But my first visit to the guard house was not to be on that day. Maria told Ayala that she must go to the hôtel and begin to metamorphose into a lady. Villens arranged for a carriage to be readied to carry Maria and myself to the hôtel. While we waited, Villens request pens, paper, and ink. The sentry pulled a small table out into the sun from inside the sentry booth. Maria and Villens wrote several letters and exchanged them. It was clear to me that these letters must be part of the plans they made after we’d seen the chateau. 
The carriage arrived and we were surprised to see that it was clearly intended to carry officers and high ranking officials. Maria insisted that blankets be laid in the upholstered seats so that we would not ruin them. With the seats now covered, we climbed in, Ayala handing up Maria, and the four matched horses smoothly pulled the carriage onto the road. As we picked up speed, I looked out the back window and saw Villens watching us glide away.

As we rolled to a stop in front of the hotel, we felt a motion on the driver’s bench and heard heavy boots crunch on the gravel. Maria’s door swung open and Ayala, hat tucked under his arm, extended a hand to help Maria from the carriage. “I am here at Martin’s request to see you that you are comfortably established and that all your needs are swiftly met,” he announced in a loud voice so that everyone entering and exiting the hotel could hear. Maria accepted his hand and gracefully stepped down from the carriage. 

When he had escorted Maria to the steps, Ayala hurried to my side of the carriage and threw open the door. I would have already left the carriage, but I couldn’t find the latch in the ornately carved door panel. I thanked him for opening the door, jumped out before he could assist me, and ran over to Maria unassisted. I had my pride. Ayala bounded over to us, the man’s energy was inexhaustible, and led us into the lobby of the Hôtel Rodriguez.  

I am certain that no such shabby persons as Maria and myself had ever entered through the front door of that grand hôtel. I suspect the same is true of the back door. I stood motionless in that glittering lobby, while Maria walked purposefully to the counter, Ayala trailing behind her. The guests stared at the strangeness of the sight. Several tall, well built, determined men in the hôtel livery closed us intent on removing us as quietly as possible. The moved dispassionately, as if intent on swiftly clearing up a spill from a dropped tray or some other unsightly intrusion on the splendor of the hôtel. 

Maria called for me to join her and Ayala turned to shield her from the path of hôtel footmen. Maria was showing a letter to the clerk, and I could hear Ayala dismissing the footmen. The clerk read the letter slowly, twice raising his head to glance swiftly at Maria. He was uncertain how to respond. He seemed unable to imagine that people who looked as Maria and I did, could possible possess such a letter from Martin Villens. Maria spoke firmly with the voice of a lady accustomed to hôtel clerks obeying her instructions. “Perhaps it would be better if you brought Señor Rodriguez to me.”

The clerk blanched. I doubt he’d every gone to Sénor Rodriguez for any reason. He was frozen to the spot, watching his position and all his hopes for advancement crumble. Ayala had joined us and he leaned over to the clerk and said in voice so low that I struggled to hear it, “Let me make this situation simple for you. Look at me. I am Lieutenant Luis Ayala. Go and bring Sénor Rodriguez to the lady.”
The clerk jumped back from Ayala as if he’d been slapped. When he was able to gather himself, the clerk scrambled through a door behind the counter and then dove back through, grabbed the letter, and disappeared through the door. “Thank you, Lieutenant,” said Maria wearily. “I will be so very glad to be clean and properly dressed. I have never been keenly aware how clothes make the woman.”

“A jewel is still a jewel if it is accidentally dropped in the mud,”replied Ayala.

Maria smiled and turned to me saying, “The Lieutenant is teaching you how to charm a woman, Finn. It's a useful skill.”

I felt awkward and clumsy next to this officer in his finery. Around him, I felt fifteen. I was already his height, and my frame would soon carry more muscle than his. I would come to know him well and admire his quick tongue, as he would come to appreciate the love of language that my family had bred in our Irish bones. But right then, standing in that lobby, a muddy  mess from head to toe, I felt the keen embarrassment of a boy who is no longer a child, but not yet a man.

The door behind the counter opened and a small, plump man, soberly and immaculately dressed emerged. Everything about him that could be brushed, shined, or polished had been, some of it twice. His face was oddly thin for such round man and on it hung an exactly trimmed mustache that must have once belonged to a much larger man for it obscured most of the lower part of his face. His large dark eyes rarely blinked and missed nothing. 

“Mademoiselle,” he said to Maria, bowing slightly. “Please come into my office and everything with done as Lieutenant Villens has requested. Please pardon my clerk. He is a promising young man, but he is inexperienced. He did not understand the misfortune that has befallen you. I will see to it that you are restored. That is the service requested of me by the Villens family and it one that I will gladly undertake.” With that said, Señor Rodriguez stepped from behind the counter and offered Maria his arm. She accepted it and he led her to his office at the far end of the lobby.

While Ayala and I waited for Maria to return, he peppered with questions. He’d seen the Baker rifle that Villens was carrying and he asked what I knew about it. He was also interested in my skill with a sword. I answered the former in great detail, the latter I glossed over. I was skilled with the rifle and with pistols, but I rarely handled a sword and had no idea how to fight with one. Ayala didn’t ask me about knives, but I’d had a knife in my hand since was a young boy and knew how to use one. I drew my long, bone handled knife and showed it to him. I told him my father had made it for me and he praised my father’s skills. I knew that when I saw my father again I would ask him to make a knife for Lieutenant Ayala.

The door opened to Rodriguez’s office and he signaled for the young clerk. He handed the clerk a piece of paper and whispered instructions in his ear. The clerk hurried off holding the paper in both hands. A little while later, Rodriguez again signaled to the clerk. This time he gave him a brief order and stood in the doorway until a distinguished looking woman in an elegant light blue dress swept across the lobby and into the office. She cast a quizzical look at me and it occurred to me that she would think I was Ayala’s prisoner. A minute later Rodriguez left the office, closing the door behind him. He walked over to Ayala and me. “I apologize for keeping you gentlemen waiting, but Madamoiselle and I had arrangements to make. Everything is understood and my wife is assisting the lady. Please follow me and I shall show you to your rooms.”

He leads us up one of the wide, curving stairways that lead from the lobby to the rooms. We passed onto a second and third set of stairs and reached the top floor. “Madamoiselle has requested rooms on the top floor. She has asked me to tell you, Senor O’Brien, that the two of you will be very busy and you will need quiet.” He turned so that his back was to a pair of doors. He reached behind his back and in practiced gesture, turned the golden door knobs and swung the doors open.

It is a strange experience for one’s first stay at a hôtel, to be at the finest hôtel one will ever know. The decor was French, indeed had been imported wholesale from France. (I later discovered that the Villens domination of the social and political life of the region had created this odd Francophile pocket in a Spanish country.) France was, of course, quite distant and the furnishing was of pre-Revolutionary style. The effect was stunning and overwhelmed the simple taste of my experience. 

Rodriguez showed me the three rooms that were mine. There was a sitting room with a small writing desk and a table with six chairs. There was a large bedroom with a bed that would have held four or five O’Brien children on a cold night. The third room a a small dressing room that had a bathroom of it. As Rodriguez lead me through the rooms, showing me interesting features and telling me history of the carpets and wall hangings, a string of maids marched through with large jugs of hot water to fill the tub. Ayala praised Rodriguez for his lovely rooms and guided him out the door. I stood in the middle of the sitting room, uncertain what to do in all this splendor. Ayala returned and said, “Come, my friend. Strip so you can bathe.”

I pulled off my filthy clothes and Ayala took them. “Do you care for these clothes?,” he asked. I told them they were just clothes. “Good. They’re ruined,” said Ayala. He stepped out of the room and returned with thick, cotton robe. “Wear this until we can get some decent clothes for you,” he said. “I have sent for my tailor. He is a French Jew, a magician with a needle.” 

Ayala led the way to the bathroom. He ordered me into the tub and took my robe which he tossed onto a stool. I slipped into the hot water and the top layers of dirt began to dissolve quickly turning the water to gray. Ayala walked over with soap and a brush. For a minute I thought he was going to scrub me. Ayala must have read the embarrassment on my face for he laughed his deep, rumbling laugh and handled the items to me. He then pulled a second stool to where we could see one another and began to explain to me what must be done to prepare me to meet the Villens family. 

For the next half-hour, I scrubbed and scrapped and chipped at the deeply encrusted dirt that covered my body. Twice the tub was cleaned and refilled by an army of maids. Once, a maid inspected the bath brush, frowned, and brought a replacement. All the while, Ayala explained this strange world into which I had fallen. The hôtel was on the road to the largest Atlantic port of the new country, Puerto Seguro, about half way from the Army headquarters and the port. It was where the wealthy and influential citizens  from the city and military officers stayed, as well as clerics, and large landowners. It was essential to be deferential to anyone you might meet, not only as courtesy is expected of a gentleman, but because anyone I might  meet here is likely of significance. Likewise, it is essential that one dresses correctly, Ayala continued.  It would be simple, if were an officer, then he could supply with a uniform. As it is, he had sent for his tailor and told him to bring what he had available until clothes could be made for me. 

An armorer was also on his way. I required a sword, scabbard, and belt. Ayala assured me that he would choice these items for me. I would be allowed to choose the pistols for myself and Maria. “Choose well,” he warned me. “They are not for show.” He told me that I should were wear my knife in the thigh sheath as I always had. “It will become you signature,” he said. He had sent the leather sheath to the bootblack to be cleaned and oiled. The did not like the look of the short, heavy bladed knife, but he admitted would be unpleasant to see in an opponent’s fist. He promised that my new boots would have a pocket sewn into them to conceal the knife.

I was as clean as I would ever be and enjoying listening to Ayala while the still warm water soothed my tired muscles, when I heard soft noises from the other room. “It is your supper,” explained Ayala. He tossed me a towel and went into the sitting room. Soon I was wrapped in the thick robe and well into the serious business of eating my first real meal in weeks. 

I ate and Ayala told of the political situation. There was an undeclared civil war between the eastern part of the new country and the western. The country was dominated by eight families, known as the Octopus. The Villens family was not one of these families, but its landholdings were nearly as large and its influence in the military was unrivaled. Three of the families, Escobar, Casero, and Tamayo, were firmly against the Rojas government. The great landholders on the Pacific, Talavera and Sabota, were Rojas supporters. Arguello, who held the desolate lands of the south, along with Nevares who holds the northern grassland of the central plains and the forests we’d travelled through, were leaning to supporting the government. The eighth family was the de la Vega family. They hold the great mines in the center of the country and have acted as mediators between Rojas and Escobar, the leader of the western families. General Villens is the military advisor to Escobar and leads the Eastern troops.

I was startled to hear the role the de la Vegas were playing in the affairs of the new nation. I had assumed that with Cupido’s death, his mother would withdrawal from public life. As for the rest of the families, I had heard of the ones whose lands were near Don Hernando’s, but the O’Briens did not move in such high circles. My father, Pau, was well known and respected, and my family was connected by marriage to the influential Bryant, Sanchez, and Casillas families, but the families of the Octopus dwelt far above us. In any political affairs, they would decide war or peace and, if war, we would bring the men to fight.

The wildcard in all the plotting that occupied the great families of the new country was Eduardo O’Brien. He had ingratiated himself into the Rojas family and government. He was the engine that drove the lazy and pleasure loving Rojas father and son. No one was certain what he wanted for the country or what he would do to achieve his ends. Disturbing news had come from the capitol about his secret police and the old warehouse that was his base of operations. Ayala warned me that our relationship to Eduardo made us suspect in many people’s eyes. Eduardo had shown that the Villens family name was no protection for Martin. Now that we were in lands controlled by Escobar and Villens, we should not assume that we were safe. Eduardo was no respecter of borders and Escobar’s followers would be suspicious of our O’Brien ties. I listened in amazement, unaware of the wider struggles that threatened war. 

A knock on the dining room door interrupted Ayala. He called for the person to enter and footman opened the door. He announced that Señor Jacob Bernard had arrived. With him was a tall, thin old man dressed in black. Ayala waved in an the old man dressed in black and introduced his tailor. Bernard wasted no time and he ordered me to remove my robe and come stand in the light. I hesitated and Jacob, quickly realizing my problem, sighed and sent the servant to bring the small clothes he had brought with him. I slipped them on then removed the robe. 

For the next hour, I was studied, discussed, critiqued, and measured as if I were a doll. Ayala and Bernard flipped through books with sketches of mens’ clothes, samples of fabrics, and careful discussions of my social status, which was complex due to the uncertainty of my relationship with the Villens family. Ayala was certain that I would be favored with wearing the family colors, but Bernard was unwilling to commit his reputation to Ayala’s confidence. He would require assurance from the Villens family. Ayala promised to have a message sent to Bernard in the morning confirming the arrangement. In the meantime, he, Ayala, promised to pay for any clothes that I was unable to wear due to his mistakes. Bernard was satisfied with arrangement. 

The tailor gathered his things and lead me into the dressing room. He opened the wardrobe and showed me several complete outfits including hats, shoes, socks, jackets, and gloves. He told me that the clothes were as befits the son of a prosperous merchant. As I was going to be spending the next few days in the hôtel and the city of Puerto Seguro, they should me appropriate. Ayala had described my build, but Bernard would send around an assistant in the morning in case any adjustment was needed. With that, he left, Ayala trailing after him, making suggestions for my new wardrobe.

Alone in the suite for the first time, I wandered from room to room amazed that all this space was mine. I opened the doorway to the hall and the tall footman who had shown Bernard into the room was standing outside the door. He asked if I needed anything and I shook my head and returned inside. It took me a while, but I eventually realized he was there for my protection. That explained the footman posted at Maria’s door.

I went to the bedroom to lie down while I waited to hear from Maria. There was a finely made wooden box on a small, round table that sat between two tiny, upholstered chairs. I opened the box and saw the two most beautiful pistols I had ever seen. The handles were walnut with silver inlay. The barrels where engraved with a hunting scene. A brass plate in the grip concealed the cleaning tools. Ayala’s card lay on to of the pistols. On the back was written, “Until you have your own.” The note was signed "A."

Finding the pistols reminded me of my duty to Maria. I searched for my knives and found them in a drawer in the wardrobe. I was still in my robe and wasn’t sure if I should put on the clothes that Bernard had brought. I kept wondering who was paying for all this. I knew that no one would have expected me to pay. I assumed that Villens must be covering our bills. I had so much to think about and there was nothing or no place familiar to help me get my bearings. As I thought about what Ayala had said  about the threats to Maria and me, I began to pace from room to room. The quiet of the hotel was disturbing. I was accustomed to a lively house full of brothers and sisters and cousins. 

I walking through a short hallway that connected the sitting room and the dressing room when I heard laughter. I stopped and heard faint voices as well. I followed the sound to a wall hanging that draped all the way to the floor. The conversation and bursts of laughter came rom behind the hanging. I carefully pulled at the side of the hanging and it pivoted away from the wall. It was hung from an iron rod that was attached at one end so the hanging swung easily. A door was inset in the wall. There was no knob, instead a brass fixture shaped like an “X” was mounted on a short stem. The fixture was cut into the door so that you could grip the handle and turn it. I did and the door silently swung open. I stepped through.

I found myself standing, in my robe and small clothes, in Maria’s dressing room. Maria was seated on a silken, padded bench at a large dressing table. She also was wearing a dressing gown, and two women were combing her long hair. The laughter and talk stopped immediately. I stood speechless staring at the unexpected scene. Maria glanced into the mirror, saw me, and looked as startled as I must have. Her face relaxed, and she said very calmly, “It’s all right, ladies. This is the young man I have told you about. Finn O’Brien, I’d like to introduce you to Mrs. Rodriguez, our host’s wife, and her daughter, Corazón. But before you introduce yourself, perhaps you should put down your knife.”

I stared at my hand and the long, bone handled knife it held. I did not remember taking the knife from the drawer or carrying in around with me. I suppose that I was more unsettled by Ayala’s talk than I realized, or perhaps I simply wanted something familiar near me. I slid my knife into its thigh sheath, but, of course I wasn’t wearing it. I managed to slit my robe and trace a shallow scratch down my thigh. Corazón screamed, Mrs. Rodriguez gasped, and Maria tried to free her hair from their grip so she could help me. I stumbled backwards through the hidden door and ran to my bathroom where I wrapped a towel around my thigh and looked for a hole to crawl into. 

There was a knock on the door and I heard Maria asking if she could come in. I opened the door for her and went back to the stool, my head in my hands. I did not want to look at her. “Let me see your leg,” she said, and I let her unwrap the bloody towel. “It’s only a scratch,” she said. “A long scratch that has bled a bit, but you do not need stitches.” She opened a jar and put some ointment on the wound. It burned, but I refused to make a sound. Mrs. Rodriguez arrived with bandages and the women tied them around my thigh. Corazón did not appear and I was thankful that. She was a young and pretty girl. I did not want her to see me like this.

Mrs. Rodriguez had brought some pins and soon my robe was restored to a decent state. Maria asked if I had eaten, and I told her I had. She hadn’t and she invited me to eat with her and Mrs. Rodriguez in her rooms. I agreed, although I still was hoping the earth would open and swallow me. Mrs. Rodriguez said that she would knock at the adjoining door when dinner was ready. She added that considering the three of us would be the only guests at the meal it was fine for me to stay in my robe. I thanked them for their kindness and tried to apologize for my foolishness, but my words were hopelessly jumbled. The ladies left me and suggested I rest until the meal was prepared. 

I went into the bedroom and stretched out on the bed. Soon I was asleep and when I awoke the next morning my robe was draped over a chair and I was under the down comforter. I didn’t know what bothered me more, if Maria had put me to bed or if Mrs. Rodriguez had. I wondered if it were possible that Ayala had returned and tucked me in. 

08 August 2011

The Memoirs of Finn O'Brien Villens: Part 3


Maria woke me when the moon was high above the trees.  The short sleep refreshed me amazingly. Ah, to be young again! Villens had the supplies loaded on the mule and we set off as soon as I pulled on my boots and gathered up the blankets. As we walked, we ate from our dwindling cache of food to which Maria had added berries and edible plants. When dawn broke, we stopped beneath a huge beech tree to rest.

We slept most of the day. Each of us stayed on watch for two hours or so, using the sun as our clock. Maria insisted that we stand guard for the same amount of time. She said that it would not do for any one of us to wear ourselves out in a foolish heroic gesture. I tried to ignore her gentle critique of my actions the previous night.

For four days and nights we hiked eastward through the woods. We didn’t hunt, because we didn’t want a gunshot to give us away. I netted two small birds that we roasted over a low fire with some mushrooms that Maria found. Their spare meat tasted wonderful, but left us wanting more. Maria produced pieces of a root she had washed, and then scrapped away the tough outer layer. We chewed it while we walked. I forget the name, but it looked like a thin, twisted potato and tasted like licorice. 

On our fifth morning in the woods, we decided to rest and then walk a while during the day. “It’s time to rejoin humanity,” declared Villens with a smile. “Time to work during the day and sleep at night.”  We’d left the trail far behind us. We hadn’t seen a soul since we entered the woods. It was time to relax a bit.
After a short walk of an hour so, during which we made silly jokes about how easy it was walk in the forest during daylight, the woods opened onto a beautiful high meadow. The pasture was surrounded on three sides by sheer rock walls and on the fourth by the forest we’d just left. Across the gently domed meadow, a small pond glittered in the rising sun. We’d been steadily climbing since we left the trail, but this was the first high meadow we’d come across. We stepped out of the woods and ran into the meadow laughing. The grass at our feet, the warm sun, the bright colors of the wild flowers and the birds were such a relief after all those nights in the woods.

The change of scene lifted our mood wonderfully. We’d been vigilant and largely silent, focusing our senses to detect any hint of pursuit. In the bright morning sun, with that lovely scene laid out before us, we knew that we’d escaped. Eduardo’s men wouldn’t dare travel so far off the trail. 

Maria announced that instead of scheduling watches, it was time we scheduled washes. She pulled a bar of rough brown soap out of her pocket. “A gift from the Aubusson girls,” she said. “They strongly suggested that I bathe.” She claimed the first wash, Villens was to go last. I was told to go second. I believe that Maria felt if I went last, I might skip my turn. Villens told us to hurry because he wanted to fish, and the poor creatures would need time to recover from the shock of three huge, filthy animals invading their sanctum.

After we’d bathed, Maria declared the day would be a holiday. We’d all do what we liked before we had to leave this lovely place the next morning. Villens and I shouted our approval. I announce that I was going to hunt birds in the high grass where the meadow and forest met. Villens said that he was going to spend the entire day fishing and that he’d appreciate it if one of us would bring him some beer. I offered to return to Aubusson and fetch some wine. He declined. Maria decided that she’d try shooting a few rabbits with the Baker rifle. It had been a while since my father had shown her how to use the rifle and she wondered if she still had the skill with it that had amazed us all. 

Now that I write about that place all these years later, I see that we all were determined to fill our food stocks. However, at the time, it was so enjoyable to be free from concern that our followers would swoop down us, these chores were relaxing. I wish we had spent more time in that meadow. Years later I found it again when I was once again fleeing pursuit, but that time the meadow was anything but a refuge.
I returned to the pond in the late afternoon as agreed. Villens was sleeping, a string of trout hanging from a tree branch. Maria was skinning a rabbit, two others piled by her feet. I walked over to Maria and nonchalantly dropped a huge male pheasant at her feet. Maria’s eyes widened and she cried, “A beauty, Finn!” Her cry woke Villens, and she pointed out the great bird. He whistled and demanded that I tell him everything about netting the bird. 

While I talked, he began to clean the fish and I started plucking the pheasant. Villens declared that we were going to stay right there in that meadow and live like kings and queens. Kings and Queens of the gypsies, added Maria. Anyway, Maria said, we had to live like kitchen help first and prepare all the food for our travels.  

While Villens and Maria worked on the food, I was sent to collect wood for a fire. We were going to smoke the fish and prepare the pheasant and rabbits on spits. I brought two arm loads of twigs and small sticks and started two fires. Once they were caught, I went deeper into the woods to get thicker branches.
I wasn’t very eager to get back to the food preparation, so I wandered around a bit. I was a good way south of where we’d passed on our way to meadow when I found piles of stone rubble and a huge rock outcropping rising from the forest floor. The forest was so thick around the rock that I didn’t see the rock until I nearly upon it. It towered over me, stretching into the treetops. I tried to walk around the massive stone, but looking along the face I could see that this was a line of rocks running off to the southeast. I couldn’t tell if the huge stones had been placed there like the monoliths I’d heard of near the mountains or if they somehow had been pushed out of the earth. 

I walked along the foot of the rocks and saw that I was on path gradually widening to about five feet across. The path was nearly free of growth. It was paved with hard packed rock chips. I could not imagine how this path could form naturally. I was following the path when it turned sharply and led directly into a crevice, the first crevice I came to in over two hundred yards since the rubble heap that marked the beginning of the rock wall. I say wall, because that is what it felt like. I couldn’t go over or around it, and it separated the forest as a wall separates the rooms in a house.

The path ended at a bottom step of rough stairs carved into the rock. The crevice was about five feet wide, as wide as the path. The stairway twisted out of sight after the third step. I started to climb, and then wondered if it was the right thing to do. It would take me many years and some hard lessons before I learned to ask that question before taking action.

There were over forty steps to the top. The path began again along the top of rock, at least thirty feet above the forest floor. It stretched along the rock tops to the southeast as far as I could see. The rock path was lined with shrubs, which turned out to be the tops of the tallest trees in the forest. I looked to the northeast and saw the meadow and the small pond. I could almost make out the shapes of Maria and Villens preparing dinner. Ahead the path was clear and very slightly rounded. Rain would roll off of the rocks. The path rose with an easy slope as it climbed into the hills. It was getting dark and I needed to get back with the wood. Only my respect for Villens and Maria kept me from racing down that trail in the treetops to what lay down that strange road.

At the top of the stairs I noticed carvings in the rock that I had missed  on the way up. At first I thought they were cracks in the rock, but when I stopped and examined them, I saw that they were pictures made a few lines. The first was an arrow with several points. The second was an oval made of wavy lines with a heavy line descending from it. The third was a thick line with a narrow, diamond shape on one end. The carvings were worn by the wind. As I followed the path back to the meadow, I saw these three carvings repeated several times, along with carvings of animals, some I recognized, others I did not.

I didn’t realize how long I’d been gone, and it was quite dark on the forest floor. I quickly gathered several long, thick branches and returned to the pond. Running as fast as I could while loaded down with firewood, I raced across the meadow. I stopped several times to look over my shoulder and try to locate the rocks, but the thick trees completely obscured them. When I reached Maria and Villens, I threw the wood down and excitedly told them of my discovery. I must have made little sense in my excitement for they made me sit, drink some water, and calm down. Maria kept telling me to breathe slowly and Villens looked at me like I was insane.

Eventually I calmed down enough to explain what I’d seen. I couldn’t tell if they believed me or not, but Villens pointed out that there seemed to be no way out of the meadow, except back into the woods. That being case, he proposed that we inspect my discovery in the morning and perhaps it would prove useful to us. We agreed, and I was pleased that they were taking my discovery seriously. I decided that I would sneak away when they were asleep to explore my find further, but when Villens began telling his story I was enthralled and forgot about my plan.

Villens and Maria returned to cooking dinner, while I told Maria about the carvings. She listened and asked questions. I grabbed a twig and drew the shapes in the dirt. Maria looked carefully at them for a while, then she told me that when she was a little girl, a Jesuit came to visit her father. He was an old man and very learned. He had lived in the mountains with the Incas since he was a young man. He mentioned Incan carvings and showed pictures of them from one of the journals he’d kept and had brought to show to Maria and her father. The carvings looked like the ones on the rocks. There was the mountain and the spear, but she did not recognize the third one, the oval made of curving lines with a jagged, thick line descending from it. What didn’t make sense was that we were hundreds of miles from the mountain kingdom of the Incas. 

While our dinner slowly cooked, we relaxed and talked. Villens said that he wished we’d taken some of Aubusson’s wine. I gagged and Maria looked confused. She’d been spared the old man’s hospitality. Villens told her about the wine, then our thoughts turned to the future. Maria asked Villens to tell us about his family. Villens had rarely mentioned them. We never knew what to make of this reticence. He’d lived among our noisy, boisterous mob of a family, but his was a mystery. 

We knew from own experience that Lieutenant Martin Villens was an educated man. He was an officer in the cavalry, but he was ambivalent about being in the military. His gracious manner convinced Don Hernando, Maria’s father, that Villens was an aristocrat. His uniform was expensive and his horse was excellent, but when he came to us from the battlefield, he didn’t have a penny. He lived in two rooms over the stables, and seemed quite pleased with them, even though Don Hernando had offered him rooms in the hacienda. He’d even taking on the daunting task of educating the O’Brien children in return for rent.
Villens tried to fend off Maria’s curiousity about his family. Finally Maria won the point, by saying that she refused to meet Villens’ family without knowing something about them. Villens grudgingly gave in as he would usually do when Maria insisted.

“My family is French, of course,” he began. “We have commanded horsemen for the Kings of France for centuries. It is said that it was a Villens who placed the child who would become Charlemagne on his first mount. We have been Knights, Lancers, Cuirassiers, Dragoons, and Chasseurs tearing across Europe, sword in hand, slaughtering the enemies of France.”

“We were well rewarded for our service. We held many estates throughout France, the largest of which were in the South, near Marseilles. The extent of lands and the fortunes of my family have risen and fallen as they sided with winners and losers in struggles for the throne.”

“It was when my grandfather, who is still alive and vigorous and is one the greatest heroes in the long history of the Villens, was fighting for a great French Duke in such a struggle, that he committed one our families greatest blunders. I’m don’t think blunder is quite the correct word. Blunder implies a mistake or accident. His actions were hot headed and ill considered. Perhaps ‘overly proud’ or ‘above his station’ would be better. Maybe ‘impudence.’”

“For God’s sake, what did he do?” I screamed, unable to control my curiosity. 

Villens was caught off guard by excitement, or he acted as if he were. He waited a beat and calmly said, “He married my grandmother.”

“But how ...?,” I asked, completely confused.

“Let him tell it,” said Maria, patting my thigh, amused by my distress. She saw that Villens had hooked me as firmly as he’d hooked the trout.

Villens was smiling, pleased with himself, when the took up his story. “My grandmother was the daughter of the Duke. My grandfather, his name is Lucien, by the way, commanded the Duke’s cavalry. Lucien had led the Duke’s cavalry to victory after victory, scattering the Duke’s enemies before him. The Duke often honored Lucien by inviting him to the palace to dine with the ducal family. That was how Lucien met and fell in love with the Duke’s daughter, Arabella, a great beauty.”

“My grandfather often managed to sit near the Duke’s daughter and the two came to know each other. Soon they were in love. One day, when the Duke was defending his palace, his enemies shattered the center of the Duke’s defenses. The enemy poured through the gap. The Duke and his officers were directly in the path of the enemy. My grandfather rallied the cavalry and they slammed into the left flank of the enemy. They rolled the enemy to the right where the Duke’s left flank was rushing to support the shattered center. The enemy was caught in a vise and crushed. Several times that day my grandfather narrowly avoided death. He had three horses killed from under him. When the battle ended, and the enemy destroyed, my grandfather decided that he would not wait any longer to ask the Duke for his daughter in marriage.” 

“When the Duke saw my grandfather approaching, he rode to him and embraced him. The Duke told the other officers that Lucien had saved their lives and that he had won the day. He praised Lucien’s bravery and skill, then removed a ring from is own hand and gave it to Lucien. The ring had belonged to the Duke’s grandfather. My grandfather thanked him humbly, then said that he had a much greater request to make of the Duke. ‘Anything,’ said the grateful Duke.”

“Your daughter Arabella and I are in love,” Lucien said. “I seek your permission to marry her.”

“The Duke was furious that my grandfather, this mere soldier, would even imagine that he might marry a Duke’s daughter. He heaped abuse on the man he had just been praising. My grandfather sat on his horse, his back straight, and head high. Blood stained his clothes and sword. He did not flinch as the Duke’s abuse grew more heated and more personal.” 

“The final straw was when the Duke, after maligning the heritage of the proud Lucien, roared, “You dare ask this of me! I who have the blood of kings in my veins.”

“I am a Villens,” replied my grandfather angrily. “I have the blood of kings on my sword.” 

“The Duke was speechless. My grandfather knew that his service to the Duke was through, so he and several officers rode to the castle, found the Duke’s daughter, and they all escaped to Spain. My grandfather insists that the cavalry were so offended by the Duke’s treatment of their commander, they refused the Duke’s command to hunt him down.”

Villens paused for bit to let the image of his grandfather and grandmother fleeing to Spain linger in our minds and then continued. “My grandmother, alas, is dead. She was the kindest, most loving soul I ever knew. She was a steadying force on my wild grandfather. They complimented each other perfectly and loved each other more on the day she died than on that wild day when they fled from her father’s rage. My grandfather has felt her loss deeply. He will sometimes sink into long periods of despair. My mother does what she can for him. She loves him and he is very fond of her, but it is difficult. I hope that I can help, as he and I have always been very close.”

Villens turned to his own thoughts for a while and my mind was filled with visions of men who looked like Villens, but were dressed in uniforms I’d seen in Don Hernando’s history books. Villens horsemen thundered before my eyes slaughtering Tartar horse archers, Teutonic knights, Turkish infantry, and English swordsmen. Maria was watching Villens, but her face did not give away her thoughts.

“My father,” began Villens suddenly picking up his tale, “my father is quite different from my grandfather. He followed his father into the cavalry, as expected, and has, if anything, outshone the old man. His talents lay in strategy and tactics, while my grandfather relied on wild, insane bravery and feats of arms. My father, Théodore, sees the battlefield as a chessboard, and makes moves that anticipate and check the enemies actions. Lucien sees the battlefield as a place of blood and honor, where heroes’ actions become the stuff of songs. Father and son would argue about these different approaches. That is, my grandfather would argue and my father would calmly discuss.” 

“No one writes songs about delicate strategic maneuvers,” my grandfather would scoff. 

“No one fills cemeteries with dead men from battles prevented,” my father would reply. When my grandfather was no around, my father referred to him as ‘the Beserker.’ My grandfather was told of this and now openly calls my father ‘the Diplomat.’ My father ignores this intended insult, but I think he is privately proud of it.”

Villens paused and then said, “Please don’t misunderstand. My grandfather and my father love and respect each other tremendously. It is just that they are oil and water. Perhaps fire and water would be better.”

Villens turned to Maria and with as sincere a look of innocence as he could manage, asked, “Would you like to know about mother?” Maria said nothing, but the look of annoyance and disgust on her face said everything that was required. “Perhaps I shall tell you of my mother,” began Villens.

“My mother and father’s story is not as dramatic as my grandparents, but it’s surprising in its own way. My mother’s family are impoverished nobility who reside in their crumbling country house near Nancy.  Her father was a Marquis whose family had been driven to near bankruptcy by multiple generations bursting with daughters. The marriage settlements whittled away the family fortune so that when my mother reached marriageable age, precious little remained.” 

“My mother was a rare beauty.” 

“Claro que sí,” murmured Maria. Villens pretended not to hear and went on with his tale. Maria interrupted and said to me that it would save time if I simply took it as given that all the Villens women were beautiful. “They send the plain girls to the convent,” she added.

“What can I do?,” asked Villens mournfully. “Such is the way it is. Nature has chosen to shower beauty on Villens women. Who am I to say otherwise? But I was talking of my lovely mother before a heckler interrupted. My mother’s family could not afford to present her in court, but word of her great beauty spread and soon many courtiers found their way to her parents’ house. Entertaining these uninvited dignitaries further diminished her family’s resources.”

“At this time, my father was serving the Spanish King, who sent him to the French court to provide a service to Louis. My father was to review the French King’s forces on the border with some of the restless German Princes. My father proposed a system of deploying the troops that he claimed would discourage aggression and, failing that, would place the French troops in better defensive positions. He also was charged with assessing the troops’ readiness for combat. He spent his days traveling from camp to camp, hotel to hotel, encountering dubious and often angry officers who had no intention of changing their comfortable routines. He travelled in the drab uniform of the Spanish Engineers, as he thought that his Major’s uniform from the Spanish cavalry was so garish it was a provocation just to appear in it.  His only accompaniment was two clerks. He was so unassuming that the lowest Musketeers were unaware of his high rank and openly mocked him.”

“At a fort near Nancy, the Captain of the Musketeers arranged a ball for the visitors. His intention was to humiliate my father through the glory of the French officers in their finest uniforms and the gracefulness of their dancing. The Captain was certain that his magnificent officers would win the hearts of all the women. My father would be shoved aside by the real soldiers, thought the Captain, which was as it should be.”

“The night of the ball my father made the one great dramatic gesture of his life. He appeared at the ball in his usual understated uniform. He was dancing with a Lieutenant’s sister, and as the Captain had predicted, he was overshadowed by the bright plumage of the French officers. My father is an excellent dancer when he is interested, but he was having difficulty keeping up with the flashy Musketeers. The orchestra played a very fast piece that my father did not recognize or appreciate. He excused himself and retired to a chair, surrendering the floor to the handsome Musketeers.”

“He sat for awhile and contemplated returning to his rooms and working on his reports, when the most beautiful woman he ever seen swept past him in the arms of the Captain of the Musketeers. Instantly my father rose from chair and forced his way through the crowd to reach the conductor. He somehow persuaded the conductor to halt playing. In the confusion that followed, my father found the beautiful woman, bowed gracefully to her, and extended his hand. She took it and he led her to the center of great hall, threading their way through the milling crowd.” 

“They reached the very center, where he turned to face her. He was still gently holding her slim white hand, which he held high, a prelude to dancing. The couple stood stock still, looking into each others eyes, and their intensity rippled throughout the great room, silencing the amazed crowd. The couple remained still as statues until all eyes were on them, then my father gestured to the conductor and the orchestra began playing a waltz. My father took his beautiful partner in his arms. They spun and twirled, the crowd giving way as the young couple danced across the crowded floor as if they were they only two people in the room. Soon other couples began to dance and before long the entire hall was filled with dancers wishing to a part of the magic. Yet no matter how many people began to dance, a moving open space surrounded the beautiful young dancers that would become my father and mother.”

“When the music ended, my father bowed to his partner and kissed the hand he had been holding so tenderly. He walked out of the hall and returned to his rooms. During the night, the girl’s father met with several courtiers and discovered that my father was a Villens and that, though young, he was highly thought of by the Spanish and French Kings. The next day, my father went to the girl’s home, introduced himself to her father, and asked to marry his daughter. The gentleman asked for his daughter to join them. He asked her if she wished to marry the young man and she said that she did. A month later they were married.”

“I was born not a a great time later and my life has been as it has been. After a while my brother Philippe was born. He is intelligent and learned, the scholar of the family. Maria, you will like my younger brother. He is studying Natural Philosophy at the Sorbonne. We thought he might become a priest, but books and collecting take up all his time. I have a sister, Julianna, who is sixteen. She has been at a Swiss school and I’m afraid I know little of her. Her letters are terribly witty and they say she is beautiful, I’m afraid. She should be home when we get there. It is possible that Philippe will be there as well.”

“And that is the Villens family,” he said with a theatrical bow. “I have overlooked the drunkards, neer-do-wells, and heretics. The stories are as my grandfather and mother have told to me. They are responsible for any exaggeration. I seem to have taken up all the time. We must sleep or Finn’s secret passageway will be a difficult march. Do you mind waiting until tomorrow to take your turn?” he asked Maria and I. We both said that we needed to rest and our family histories could wait. It was late before we cleaned the place and packed our things for an early departure.

Morning came long before I was ready to waken. Villens and Maria let me sleep as long as possible, but I still struggled to clear my head as we reentered the woods. I need a clear head because I had to lead the way to the base of the rock trail. For the first time, the mule was having difficulty getting through the forest. The undergrowth was thicker than anywhere we’d passed so far. Had we not been searching, we would have avoided the dense undergrowth and missed the rocks altogether.

Villens used the sword bayonet as a machete to clear a path for the mule. Maria followed me closely. We pushed through a tangle of vines and fallen branches and the first rock stood about six feet in front of us. It was if it appeared out of nowhere. A few minutes later, Villens and the mule crashed through the barrier and the four of us stood on the crushed gravel path that ran along the face of the rock. 

Because we hadn’t seen the rock until we nearly ran into it, it loomed over us. Had we seen it from a distance and walked up to it, the rock would still be massive, but the suddenness of its appearance lent it an unnerving, brooding quality. Lost in our own thoughts, we stood and looked at the rock for a time. My description hadn’t prepared Villens and Maria for its scale. Even though I’d seen it already, I saw in the late afternoon gloom of the forest. Seeing it in the morning light was an entirely different, unsettling experience.

The mule, however, was unmoved. It stepped onto the gravel path, pleased to free on the entangling undergrowth, and trotted away. This movement shook us from our lethargy and Villens called out for me to lead the way. I ran ahead to catch up with the mule and Villens and Maria fell in behind. Soon we were at the crevice where the path leads to the stairs. I was worried about how the mule would handle the stairs, but needn’t have been. It tripped as lightly up the steps as if it were on level ground. 

I stopped at the top of the steps and looked back. Villens was right behind me, but Maria had stopped and was examining a set of carvings. She ran a finger in the deep grooves and frowned. She walked up the rest of the way and I showed her the carvings at the top of the steps. She asked for my knife and ran the blade along the carving. She held her hand so that she would catch anything the knife dislodged. The morning sun slanting over the tree tops illuminated the rock face. I looked in Maria’s palm and saw only dust and grit. She must have thought the same, for she handed me the knife and brushed off her palms. “I thought I remembered that the Incas painted their carvings. Perhaps these are so old the paint’s worn away.” She and I walked over to where Villens was standing with the mule. He was looking over the tree tops to the small pond were he’d fished the other day. 

“I had no idea that all this was here. I was sitting right there, by the pond, and all this was hidden. Incredible. Quite a find, Finn,” he said.

We walked a few steps along the trail and checked our direction against the sun. We agreed that the rocks ran to the southeast, the direction that we were going. Maria said that we might as well follow the path along the top of the rocks for as long as we could as the smooth, straight surface would be faster than walking through the woods. Also, from this height, we could see a good distance in all directions. We agreed that Maria made sense and off we went. 

Villens studied the rock carefully and Maria paid attention to the carvings as we walked. Villens noted the path was cambered so water would run from the rock instead of pooling and leading to cracks. Maria wondered if the water pouring over the side explained the thick plant growth near the rocks. I pointed out that stones of different sizes had been worked into the spaces between the standing rocks. This allowed for the smooth road to bridge the gaps between the rocks. After a while we settled into a comfortable pace and simply enjoyed walking in the warm sun with the cool breeze in the tree tops now cooling us as well.

We travelled for three days on what we came to call the rock road, covering a distance that would have taken us at least ten days in forest. At first we thought we’d make a mistake, for we had no idea where we would be able to get down. There was no food or water on the rock and if we slept there we would have been exposed and uncomfortable. After we’d walked a few hours that first day, Maria raised the question of getting down. We felt foolish for an hour or so, that we hadn’t considered this before we set out, but then we found another flight of steps that led to the forest floor. Before we went down, we looked from the rock and saw that the stairs would put us a short way from another small meadow, this one with a spring. We spent the night there and returned to the rock road in the morning. It turned out that these little meadows with water sources were scattered through the hills and whoever built the trail built stairways leading down to each one. 

Traveling on the rock road and sleeping in the lovely meadows was so far removed from our flight from Eduardo’s men that we lost any sense of danger. The atmosphere became one of an extended holiday. Game was plenty in the forest, along with berries and edible plants. There was fresh water easily available in the meadows. As we walked along we’d sing and joke and tell stories. Villens would tell exquisitely detailed adventure stories or hilarious comic tales. Maria often speculated about the carvings, which fascinated her. She pointed out that animal carvings had started to appear. She showed me a carving of a beast that looked like a shaggy mule. She said it was a llama, a pack animal used by the Inca to carry loads in the high mountains. 

I had heard about llamas, but had never been anywhere near enough to the high mountains to see one. Maria explained that llamas would have an easier time on the rock road than mules. The stairs would be no trouble to them nor would the cold winds in the winter. She also said that since llamas lived in mountains, that might explain the mountain and llama carvings appearing near each other. She noticed that the carving of the spear had differing numbers of feathers attached and pointed in different directions. Perhaps they were signposts. 

I said that I thought the last carving, the one we weren’t sure of, could be a thundercloud with a lightening bolt. We stopped and looked carefully at the next one we found, and they agreed with me. Maria noted that the thunderstorm carvings looked recent. “My grandmother says that the worst storms come out of the mountains,” I said. Maria said she’d have to think about that. It would be several years until I found out what the thundercloud meant, until I and many others were caught up in the great storm that rolled down from the mountains.