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.