Act Two, Part One ~~~
Señora Reyes laid her knitting bag down on the dresser in her room at the consulate and peered at the mirror to have a look at herself. She saw a thirty-four-year-old widow with what were beginning to be permanent frown lines across her forehead and down the sides of her mouth. She tried an experimental smile; to her, that only made matters worse. Whatever then had Señor Gor… ah, no, Señor Mar… no, Pablo! What had he seen to attract him?
Nothing, she reminded herself severely. He merely needed a pretext to gain admission to the consulate, and she was that pretext, nothing more. How silly los señores must have thought her, giggling - actually giggling! - over Señor Gordon's sweet talk!
Well, it would be for this one evening only. He would arrive, she would show him where the suspicious linen closet was, and he would then, she hoped, find the evidence he needed to back up her allegations. Ah, but then what? Would they arrest the baroness? Could they arrest the baroness? Was she not the law here at the consulate? Was there anything the Americans could do?
What, thought Catalina Reyes, have I gotten myself into by going to the Americans!
The door opened and she whirled. She had locked that door!
Colonel Nevje, the chief guard, the bulldog-faced woman, stood in the doorway smirking at her. "So where have you been, Reyes?"
"I… went into the city."
"Did you? Why?"
Catalina tried to cover up her nervousness by picking up the knitting bag and moving it to another part of the room. Well, this was as good as time as any to begin trying to convince someone to permit Señor Gordon to enter, she supposed. "I… I have a suitor."
"I have met a gentlemen. His name is Señor Don Pablo Martínez. I have… I have invited him to come and see me here at the consulate. Tonight. He will come tonight."
She was not looking at Colonel Nevje; she could not. To meet anyone's eye at this point, Catalina knew, would betray that she was lying. And because she was not looking at the chief guard, she did not see the woman storm into the room. She knew nothing until her wrist was seized as Nevje whirled her around to face her.
Catalina cried out and tried to wrest her arm from the guard's iron grip. "What are you doing? How dare you?"
Nevje poured out a stream of Pterovnian curses upon the hapless governess, ending with, "You fool! How dare you invite a man here? The baroness will deal with you!" And she dragged the governess from her room, hauling her through the building to Baroness Vazilje's office. Once there, the guard all but flung the woman into the office; Catalina very nearly sprawled on the carpet.
The baroness looked up. "What is this, Nevje? What are you doing?"
With venom the chief guard spat out, "She has invited a suitor to come see her tonight, here at the consulate!"
"A suitor!" The baroness eyed the governess in disgust. "Is this so?"
By now Catalina's shock at being seized and yanked along through the corridors had given way to fury at such insulting treatment. The phrase "How dare they!" echoed and reechoed through her head as she drew herself up straight and glared at both women. "What if it is true? I am a widow. I may remarry if I choose. I am not so old that no man will ever want me again!"
Nevje, hearing that last statement as a mockery against the newly widowed baroness, raised an arm and backhanded Catalina across the face. Heatedly, the governess now fixed the guard with a withering look and proclaimed, "Nor am I so ugly that no man would ever look at me twice save with loathing!"
The chief guard's hand began to fly once more, but the baroness stopped her with a word. Coming around her desk, she circled the governess as the younger widow stood there, one hand covering her abused cheek. "So," said the baroness, "you have a suitor, do you?"
Wordlessly, Catalina nodded.
"But I am surprised! I should have thought that a woman who has escaped the cage that is marriage would not wish to be imprisoned again."
The governess watched the older woman continuing to circle her. She could not say, of course, that the idea of her having a suitor had been Señor Gordon's idea. But then the import of the baroness' words sank in and Catalina responded, almost without giving it any thought, "But I loved José. He was a good man."
"Good? Man? The words 'good' and 'man' do not belong together in the same sentence!" the baroness spat at her. She stopped now in front of the younger widow and studied her narrowly, shaking her head. "I begin to see that perhaps you are not fit to instruct my daughter," she said. "I hired you on the belief that you, as a widow, would understand what despicable creatures men are and would instill that knowledge in my daughter. I want her to know that men are not to be trusted, that men are evil beasts that women are well rid of, that men will use women and cast them aside, and any woman who turns that about to use men and cast them aside should be lauded as a heroine to her sex!" She whipped away, turning her back upon the governess.
Catalina stared at her. "But… but what of your husband? The baron was a fine and decent man. And what of your son? Do you regard Andreshko as despicable and evil? He is a sweet child, a smart child, a thoroughly charming little boy."
The baroness gave a bitter laugh. "Charming little boy! Oh, again you show your lack of understanding. Charming little boy, you say - but all men are charming little boys. Boys, indeed, for when do they ever truly grow up? But oh! how they pour forth the charm! They speak so sweetly and act so gallantly - until they have you trapped. And then, what are you, hmm? Señora Reyes… Mrs White… Madame Le Blanc… Zerinje Gorashche… some man's wife, no longer yourself, but merely an adjunct of him! Yes, even I! I am not a baroness in my own right, but only because my husband was named a baron. But no more! I…!"
She fell silent. Into that silence, softly, almost in awe, the governess asked, "You what?"
The baroness drew herself up proudly and met the younger woman's eye steadily. With a laugh, she said, "I shall give you another chance, Governess. You may stay on and teach my daughter - and yes, my son as well! - for now. But rest assured, my dear, if you marry, you shall lose your position."
"But I would expect that," said Catalina. "Were I to have a husband again, would he not wish me to stay home?"
The flame that kindled in the baroness' eyes at that remark gave such a flash that the governess marveled that she was not consumed by it. And then the stately dowager calmed herself anew. "You may go, Governess. Go see to the children. You will be summoned when it is time for tonight's dinner."
Slowly Catalina crossed the room to the door. Pausing with her hand on the door knob, she ventured to ask, "And my suitor? Señor Don Pablo Martínez is his name. What of him?"
"He will be turned back at the gate!" snarled Colonel Nevje.
"No," said the baroness. "He will be welcomed. Any… friend of our governess is a friend of ours. He may take dinner with us this evening. Now see to the children."
Catalina stared at the baroness for a long moment, then nodded and left, closing the door behind her. Out in the hall, she leaned against the door for a moment and let out a long sigh before shaking her head uncertainly and pattering off to the children's suite.
The chief guard swung about to gape at the baroness. "He will be welcomed?" she blurted out, aghast.
Baroness Vazilje smiled; had Catalina seen this smile, it would have frozen the marrow in her bones. "Oh, but of course he will be welcomed, my dear Nevje! This Martínez fellow, he wishes to court a woman? By all means, let him!"
"I do not understand, my lady."
"That is because you have no imagination. But consider the little, ah, surprise our Ekatje has been preparing especially for the prince's visit. Hmm? We have had no man to try it out for us, to see if our prince will, ah, enjoy it."
The colonel began to laugh; it was a heavy, ugly sound. "Ah, I understand now, my lady! Forgive my confusion. Of course he will be welcome. He will be the, ah… the guinea fowl, yes?"
"Guinea pig, Nevje," the baroness corrected. "Yes. Yes, this Pablo Martínez shall be our guinea pig. And after he has put it to the test, we shall see what our governess thinks of him then."
"And after him, the prince."
"Yes, the prince. We need only to lure him here. But that will be soon now. Very soon." She laughed and cast a conspiratorial grin toward the colonel. "Very soon indeed!"
At six in the afternoon, a man presented himself at the gate of the Pterovnian consulate. He was dressed in the finest style of a Mexican don of the generation previous, before the state of California had passed into the hands of the United States of America. His suit was immaculate, his sombrero wide and highly decorated, his mustachios waxed to perfection and slightly curled at the tips. A touch of gray at his temples lent him an air of suave sophistication. As one of the women from the guardhouse came to the gate to question his presence, he drew himself up straight upon his fine chestnut gelding and proclaimed himself to be, "Señor Don Pablo Martínez, here to visit with the charming Señora Catalina Reyes, por favor. She is expecting me."
"Momentito, señor," said the pretty young guard.
Artie responded with a courteous nod, impressed that they had put a guard at the gates who knew some Spanish. He waited the little moment as she had requested he do, still holding himself tall and proud as would befit a man such as Don Pablo.
And now the guard returned and unlocked the gate for him. She pointed the way up the road, telling him to ride directly to the consulate. He nodded his thanks and headed for the building as the gate was locked again behind him.
Meanwhile, around the side of the great wall surrounding the consulate grounds, Jim West slipped silently along to take up a position where he was hidden from sight. He watched and listened, timing the passage of the guards on their rounds within the property, waiting for darkness to fall so that he too might enter this little outpost of Pterovnia.
Don Pablo stood within the anteroom of the consulate, waiting. A stable girl had taken his horse, another young female had opened the door to him and ushered him inside, and a third, who had taken his sombrero, now waited with him, surreptitiously keeping an eye on him while the one who had admitted him went to fetch Señora Reyes. His own eyes roamed the room inconspicuously, noting especially among the décor the presence of various weapons displayed on the walls.
And then the doorkeeper returned and announced the governess, and Artie went into his smitten suitor act full-bore.
"Ah, Catalina, querida mia! How beautiful you look tonight!" He clasped her hand and bent over it, saying for her ears only, "Was it difficult getting me in?"
She led him over to a couch and they sat together, he being very attentive, she dropping her head and acting quite shy. "It was… strange," she answered him softly. "At first the baroness was on the verge of dismissing me as the children's governess, only to change her mind and invite you to take dinner with us."
"For the crime of taking a suitor, sí! As I told you before, ella está loca."
"Shh. But I am invited to supper?"
"Sí. Are you… are we in danger?"
The chief guard entered the room at this point, and Don Pablo made a large laugh and lifted Señora Reyes'hand to his lips once more, saying, "Ah, querida! Is it not ever thus?"
Was that his answer to her question? Catalina was not sure.
As Artie smiled at the governess, he noted that one side of her face was heavily made up, though not quite heavily enough to hide from his eyes the fresh bruise across her cheek. When had that happened, and why? He also caught the narrowing of her eyes and the thinning of her lips as she glanced at the chief guard. Hmm. There was no love lost between those two!
The chief guard came toward them, and Artie rose from the sofa politely. "I am Colonel Nevje," she growled out at him, "and you, I presume, are Señor Martínez, the suitor about whom we have heard so much." She looked him over, and from the expression on her face Artie was sure that she did not esteem him as being worth much notice. This was fine with him, of course, for when the time came to find the hidden office, he hoped to be of practically no notice whatsoever.
"The baroness wishes to meet you before dinner," the guard went on. "Veshte djo! Follow!"
Artie glanced at Señora Reyes. Curious. The guard's command had been in the singular form, singular masculine. The governess came to her feet anyway and followed as well. Artie offered his arm and she took it as they trailed after Colonel Nevje through the house. The colonel stepped up to a richly carved door, knocked, then opened it. She gestured the guest inside, but caught the governess by the arm and hissed something at her in Pterovnian, something insulting.
She was counting on the Mexican don not understanding Pterovnian, thought Artie, who had comprehended every word. He hoped that meant he was accepted for who he claimed to be, and that no one had penetrated his disguise. Pasting a broad smile across his face, he entered the office and the door was closed behind him.
It was dark enough now, Jim decided. He listened for the next patrol of guards to pass by inside the wall, then produced and unfolded a small grappling hook and hurled it up over the top of the wall. He tugged it back until it caught and held in the spikes. Quickly and quietly he scrambled up to the top, then tossed his jacket over the spikes and climbed over to the inside of the wall. Disengaging the grappling hook, he let both the rope and his jacket fall to the ground within the wall, then dropped down himself. For a few seconds he remained still as he glanced about, but seeing no one, he gathered his things, tucked the coiled rope away in his clothing, then set off for the consulate, dodging from one patch of darkness to the next until he reached the building.
The stately woman arose from behind the desk and came around it. "Good evening, Señor Martínez," she said with a warmth in her voice that did not reach her eyes. "I am the Baroness Vazilje Gorashche. Welcome to my home."
Don Pablo bent gallantly over her hand. "¡Buenas noches, señora! And may I offer mis condolencias - I am given to understand that sympathy is in order."
"Symp… Oh, that." She gave a dismissive wave of her hand. "It is of no import. Death, as we know, is a part of life."
Artie hesitated but a moment, stunned by both her open confirmation of her husband's death and her callousness regarding his passing. He then smiled and said, "But of course. Who has ever enjoyed life under the sun without tasting of death in the end?"
"Precisely," she said. Crossing to a small table with a carafe and glasses, she offered, "Sherry?"
"¡Ah, sí, señora! ¡Con mucho gusto!" he accepted enthusiastically.
She poured him a glass and one for herself, then seated herself behind the desk once more and said, "Now, Señor Martínez, I should like to know your intentions toward my governess: they are honorable?"
"¡Sí, señora! But of course!"
"And you are a man of means? I ask because, of course, if you should marry Señora Reyes, she will lose her position here as governess."
"Ah, sí, of course. I am from an old California family, señora. Old money, eh? I will be able to provide very well for my little Catalina," he assured her.
"Ah, but I find it surprising that our governess even has a suitor, señor. A serious suitor for her hand, about whom we at the consulate have heard nothing whatsoever until today?"
"Ah, well, you see, it is like this," and Artie gave his imagination free rein. "I am an old friend of the family. I live down in the south and come to San Francisco only rarely. The last time I was here, Catalina's husband was still alive. After he passed on, she wrote to tell me of the tragic news, but from that time until now I have not been free to come visit her. In the meantime, we have been corresponding by letter, and…" he smiled, putting a twinkle into his eyes, "through those letters, we have come to fall in love."
"By letter. Really," said the baroness. "But Señora Reyes has received no such letters here at the consulate; I would know if she had."
"Oh, but I do not send them here. I post them to a dear aunt of hers, who passes the letters on to Catalina whenever she goes into town to visit her."
"Her aunt? I don't seem to recall Señora Reyes ever speaking of an aunt."
Artie nearly choked on the sherry. "¡Ay, caramba! Did I say 'aunt'? I meant to say 'abuela.' Her grandmother. You will pardon me, por favor, over my poor proficiency with the language of English, señora."
"Hmm. I see." Her eyes narrowed as she gazed at him, and Artie smiled back genially, hoping he hadn't blown his cover.
"Well," she said at last, "I believe it is time for our dinner," and she lifted a small bell from the desk and rang it.
Instantly the chief guard entered the room. "My lady?"
"Please show Señor Martínez to the dining hall. And Señora Reyes, where is she?"
With a glance at the Mexican don, the colonel switched over to Pterovnian and replied, "I sent her to see to the children, which is her proper place."
"But she has a guest," the baroness said sweetly. "She must come and dine with her guest. Go and fetch her at once!"
"Dasda, Zernkje muje. Yes, my lady." The colonel bowed and exited.
Baroness Gorashche came around the desk again. "As your sweetheart is not present currently for you to escort her to the dining hall, you shall simply have to make do with me," she said, slipping a hand through his elbow, which he then belatedly crooked for her. He hurriedly deposited his glass of sherry on the small table from which it had come and accompanied his hostess from the office.
Jim continued on toward the consulate, dodging a few patrols along the way. At length he arrived in the ornamental gardens where he found a dark spot among some hydrangea bushes in which to conceal himself as he studied the building.
The consulate was two stories tall and built like a bank vault - or perhaps a prison. All the windows on the ground floor were enclosed behind bars. The bars were in intricately graceful designs, echoing the motif of the front gates to the grounds, and they therefore added beauty and charm to the building. But bars they were nonetheless.
The upper floor, though - that had possibilities. The windows upstairs were not barred, and Jim found it especially encouraging that one of the trees of the garden, a cottonwood, spread its sturdy branches very close to a dark window up there. He waited out another patrol of the guards, then slipped over to that tree and began to climb.
Of the baroness and the don, it was she, of course, who showed the way to the dining hall. They arrived through one door just as Nevje and Catalina, her knitting bag clutched in her hand, entered through another.
Señor Martínez bowed formally to the baroness, then crossed the room to greet his supposed sweetheart with another kiss on the hand. What a relief he found it to be away from the baroness! Not only was there something about her that rubbed him the wrong way, but her perfume was cloying and obnoxious in the extreme.
The dinner was served. Artie was seated opposite Señora Reyes, with the baroness at the head of the table and the colonel at the foot of it. The food was lavish and thoroughly Pterovnian, with the main course something very much like Artie's favorite of beef stroganoff. The conversation was perfunctory; Artie had the strong sense that the baroness was curbing her tongue around him, and he pondered what sort of things he might say that would jar her into unguarded speech. Asking about the children brought forth more answers from Catalina than the children's own mother, and what little the baroness did have to say of her progeny was chiefly about her daughter Mireje.
What was her son to her then, Artie wondered: chopped liver?
Jimmying the window had taken him some time, but now West was inside a hallway of the upper floor. He listened carefully as he stole along through the building, watching out for guards or anyone else. As he made his furtive way through the quiet of the upper story, a door sprang open just as he was passing it, and a voice called out cheerfully, "Why, Mr West!"
It was the long-haired boy, Andreshko. Jim instantly clapped a hand over the kid's mouth and shoved him back through the door into the room beyond, shutting them both inside. He held up a finger for silence, then released the boy's mouth. Quickly Jim made a cursory survey of the room.
This was apparently an old-fashioned nursery suite. Part of the large chamber was the classroom with bookcases and desks and a blackboard, and another part was the dining area, currently in use, with china and silver at the place settings and chafing dishes sending forth enticing aromas scattered upon the damask tablecloth. A rolling cart stood near the table with a glass pitcher of some beverage upon it.
The enchanting Mireje was just springing to her feet from the table. "What…?"
"Shh!" said Andreshko, his face a mask of delight. "Look! I have found Mr West sneaking through the corridor! Isn't that marvelous? We have caught a spy!"