The Violet Phantom and the Yellow Conquistador: Part 2
The HMS Warrior arrived in the port of Corunna, in north-western Spain, on June 6th, 1808. When it was finally tied down at the dock, a portly, well-dressed Spaniard approached the vessel and bellowed, “Hola, nuestros aliados!”
The man was Antonio Batista, a local Spanish ally of the British, and a manager of a popular local bullring. He had an expensive cigar sticking out of the corner of his mouth and was puffing on it contentedly. The manager of his estate, Diego Coronado, was standing alongside him in a striped poncho, chomping on a piece of straw. Evidently it was the best he could do to look equally impressive as his boss, cigar-less though he was.
Lieutenant Slaymaker, standing on the deck of the ship, waved enthusiastically to the two Spaniards. “Usted tiene la cara de un cerdo!” he greeted them with a wide smile.
Jane, who was standing beside Austin disguised in a scarlet uniform, realized to her amusement that he had just denoted Batista as having the face of a pig.
“Es realmente muy estúpido,” She interjected in a feigned gruff tone, causing the wealthy Spaniard and his attendant to go from silent shock to fits of rolling laughter.
“What did you say there?” inquired Slaymaker.
“I just informed the gentlemen that you were well-educated,” Jane fibbed, not feeling the necessity to inform him that the proper translation was quite to the contrary.
“Why, thank you,” Slaymaker chirped happily. He then turned back to Batista and gestured to Jane. “Anyhow, this is my aide, Lieutenant…uhhh…Violet,” stammered Slaymaker, gazing into her mesmerizingly violet-colored eyes and feeling a sudden rush of heat in his cheeks.
Jane giggled softly, and this just made Slaymaker blush more. Antonio and Diego smiled awkwardly.
Just then, Captain Leonard Fisher rudely pushed past Slaymaker and Jane, crossing arms over in chest in a show of authority. Due to the fact that his father, Samuel Fisher, had raised the company, he had been put in charge of the mission to Spain and was evidently letting his newfound power expand the size of his head.
“Are we just going to stand here on deck all day?” he barked to Batista. “I expect that we have proper accommodations, no?”
“Oh, my humble apologies, senor,” gushed Antonio. “Diego, take these people back to your farm – there is not enough room for everyone at my humble estate, and we must make…ehem…special considerations for the officers.”
Diego nodded and replied with an unquestioning “Si”
Meanwhile, in the city of Paris, there dwelt a gypsy and a gypsy, Abele Séduisante and her son, Marcel Demifrere. Abele had once been renowned throughout France as a great enchantress. Now in her middle age, she still had a certain bewitching sparkle in her eyes, and a handy way of stealing men’s stuff – snuff boxes, being her specialty.
Demifrere, for his part, had secured a job with the French government a year before. As a result, he had been admitted as a member of Napoleon’s secret service, responsible for sharpening the blades on the guillotine, spying on the British, and helping old ladies across the busy street.
The work didn’t pay all that well, and he and his mother had to live in an apartment in a seedy Paris neighborhood. Still, they managed to supplement their income as road-faring entertainers according to their heritage – juggling, dancing, and telling positive fortunes to gullible aristocratic enemies of the Emperor (before turning them in to the sons of the revolution for the referral bonus, of course).
One day, a messenger appeared at their door with a letter from the Committee, tasking them with spying on the Spanish supporters of the British, in the hopes of undermining their unity.
“Mama, this our big chance!” exclaimed Demifrere. “Get out o’ ratty street, steal British gold, eat chocolate…”
“Eh, bad sign in crystal,” Mama countered. “Not so good we leave, Demi.”
“You just ‘fraid you lose your old touch, Mama,” sonny scoffed.
“What you say there, mon fils?” Abele bristled. “Ha! You seen nothing yet. Fetch me castanets! We hit road!”
Back in Spain, Leonard, Jane, and Slaymaker were cramped up in the guest room at Diego’s farm, which was very crowded due to his large family, along with an extended domesticated entourage of indoor goats, pigs, chickens, and a cow. Diego’s cow was rather plump because it refused to pull the plow. As a result Diego’s ten kids pulled the plow instead. They complained frequently, but Diego would always insist that the exercise was good for them. The goats also had ten kids, but they didn’t work at all. Nevertheless, Diego had a cantankerous wife who unhappily cared for the kids, the kids, the cow, and the chickens. She also had a way of motivating her hapless guests to shift their weight.
Amid the rush of chores such as sweeping, mopping, bucket carrying, cooking, dish-washing, and other relaxing diversions, Leonard fell into a habit of constantly complaining about the conditions, with Slaymaker trying to counteract him by taking a positive outlook, and Jane keeping as quiet as she could to prevent her high-pitched voice from giving her away.
“Have these peasants made us their personal slaves?” whined Leonard, dressed in a white-frilled apron, feather duster in hand, stifling a sneaking sneeze. “This place reeks of livestock! The beds are lumpy and uncomfortable, and those kids just won’t shut up! And the other kids won’t shut up either!”
“My dear chap, it’s not half so bad,” responded Slaymaker in an unreasonably cheery way, waving his cleaning rag dramatically, “but even if it is, it builds character. And character builds hope. And hope…” He noticed that Leonard wasn’t appreciating his biblical dissertation, and decided to cut to the chase. “Anyhow, why don’t you just open a window? That’ll solve some of your problems.”
“Alright,” grumbled Leonard, unlatching the shutters on the single window of the cottage. It was a windy day, and the shutters were difficult to open. He let out a low groan [as well as a few unprintable linguistic niceties]. Leonard angrily motioned for Slaymaker and Jane to help him, and they both thought it would be best to accommodate him. With a slight heave given by the collective three, the shutters swung open, and a huge gust of wind roared in, knocking Jane’s hat off and blowing her hair down.
Leonard gasped. “What are you doing here? Aren’t you Jane De Lacy? I thought I saw you at my father’s muster!”
“Dear captain,” she said, laying a hand on his arm and batting her eyelashes, “would you really reveal me to my disgrace?”
Leonard paused, feeling just a little bit flattered by the sudden feminine attention. Leonard hadn’t had much luck with the ladies back in England, mainly because of his resemblance to a warthog. Now he was taken aback with delight by even the vaguest semblance of attraction from the opposite sex.
“Well,” he said puffing out his chest like a pelican, “I suppose I could keep your secret, in the spirit of chivalry.”
“And chivalrous it would be,” Jane reassured, batting her eyelashes again. She then took him to the side and whispered in his ear, “Especially because of Austin. He needs me.”
At that moment, Leonard felt a surge of jealousy well up within him. It just wasn’t fair that this lovely creature should be snatched away from him so quickly! “Don’t worry, m’dear,” he responded. “Your little friend will have both of us to look out for him now.” Already, the twitterpated captain had begun to hatch a nefarious scheme.
It was not long before the Senora of the home decided to send one of her guests on a mission to purchase some vegetable from an open-air market. The chosen man was Austin, but for some reason unbeknownst to him, Leonard insisted on accompanying him. Thinking this was probably just a manifestation of desperation to get out of the house on the part of his comrade, Slaymaker didn’t protest.
The walk into town really was a refreshing experience. The noon sun was blazing above, but there was also a nice salty breeze blowing in from the ocean. Seagulls were screeching overhead, making occasional nose-dives into the streets and snatching fallen morsels of food for lunch. Citizens and soldiers alike were meandering among the stalls, which sold milk, cheese, vegetables, fish, chocolate truffles (which Austin eagerly sampled), colorful shawls, mantillas, fans, and even equipment for matadors who fought at the local bull-ring.
But it was something on one of the walls behind the stand that caught Leonard’s attention. It was a poster announcing an upcoming bullfight for the entertainment of the visiting British troops, to commence tomorrow morning, with all interested parties are invited to compete. Watching as Slaymaker haggled with a stall woman about the price of a lace mantilla, Leonard hatched a devious plan to do away with his rival.
When Slaymaker was finally finished, he skulked back to his comrade’s side, shaking his head. “These Corronese are a lot of robbers!” He waved the violet-blue mantilla aloft. “This little piece cost me a fortune!”
“And who’s that for?” Leonard challenged. “Your mama?”
Slaymaker turned his eyes to the ground and murmured, “I…I thought Ms. De Lacey might like it…after we get back to England, of course. The color goes well with her eyes…”
Leonard cleared his throat and pointed towards the poster. In a tone dripping with faux admiration, he remarked, “Now there’s a way to win a fair lady, one which I do not doubt you will leap at the chance to enter.”
“Well, umm,” he stammered. “My experience in the art is…umm…”
“Obviously well-cultivated,” Leonard hurriedly finished for him. “After all, you got that scar on your cheek while in the bull-ring, did you not?”
“Oh, come, come,” Leonard scoffed. “It’s common knowledge. You’re far too modest, old boy.”
“Indeed,” the modest-one replied shakily. “It’s one of my greatest faults.”
The bullfight was a colorful affair. The crowd was largely of farmers and other assorted laborers, with a few aristocrats present, but in a separate seating area. The first part of the entertainment in the ring below consisted of a gypsy troupe, dancing with castanets and tambourines, juggling flames torches and cheese knives, and doing gymnastics on the back of a trotting little white pony. After they finished their act – and the crowds showered them with coins and chocolates – Antonio stepped forward to serve as the announcer.
He was dressed in green silk pants and short-waisted jacket, both of which were embroidered with gold embossing and various bells sewn in. There was a pale green cape that went down to his knees that was draped on his left shoulder – it had the colors of Corunna, blue and purple, striped around the edges.
As Batista began to read a yellow-tinged parchment paper to the assembled throng, Leonard and Jane, dressed smartly in their scarlet uniforms, took their seats to watch the proceedings.
“What’s the bloke saying?” Leonard whispered in her ear.
“He’s just going over the history of this bull-ring,” she muttered. “Now he’s going on about some local legend.”
“Whatever about?” he huffed.
“Well, it has to do with a great conquistador who will spring from Corunna,” she elaborated, “a golden-haired warrior who will able to ride the bull.”
“Poppycock!” snorted the captain.
“Well, he’s almost through, at any rate,” Jane assured him. “Now he’s just announcing the names of the…the…” She gasped. “Oh, Austin!”
“Well, my dear, he did say he had experience in the bull-ring before,” Leonard insisted slyly. “Evidently that’s where he acquired the notable scar on his cheek.”
“Zounds!” yelped Jane. Leonard made an evil snicker as her eyes grew wide with horror. “What causes such amusement, sir?” she snapped, electrified by a surge of motherly instinct for her beleaguered surrogate in the arena.
“Oh, I…just…it wasn’t a laugh,” he countered lamely. “It was actually a sneeze, because I’m allergic to sunshine. You see, my father used to punish me as a child by locking me in the cellar…”
“Enough, enough,” chided Jane, holding a small pair of opera glasses to her eyes.
The three bullfighters were just stepping out into the arena, making dramatic bows and the like. Slaymaker and his fellow contestants were dressed similarly to Antonio. The only thing that made the British officer stand out in particular was that he had insisted that his matador outfit be colored a bright crimson red. Antonio, having concluded his long-winded announcements, pulled out his trumpet, and gave it two quick blasts. Jane instinctively crossed her fingers.
Antonio climbed over the barricade and shouted: “Good luck, amigos!” Then he mumbled under his breath, “You’ll all need it.”
Suddenly, a gate at the opposite end of the arena opened with an angry, huffing, snorting, large brown bull. As the first cape-swinging bull-fighter stepped forward to meet the challenge, Slaymaker and the other contestant slipped back to the cellars. There they found the gypsy troop relaxing in the cool shade, sharpening their cheese knives, polishing their magic crystals, retying their head bandanas, trying to extinguish their flaming torches, and attempting to stop the little white pony from sneezing, because she was apparently allergic to the saw dust in the arena.
Slaymaker sighed and decided to comfort himself with a bit of snuff. He reached for the snuff-box under his cloak and admired it by the ray of light from the grating above. For a trinket from some pawn shop his father had visited while ambassador in France, it really was quite pretty. The little bits of green blue glass really did look like gems at that…
“Excuse me, Monsieur,” said one of the gypsies who, unbeknownst to Austin, was really Marcel Demifrere. “But that is a beautiful box!”
“Why, thank you,” Austin chirped. At least someone appreciated his inherited good taste.
“It must have cost a fortune!” Demifrere declared. “Its worth is a compliment to your family name.”
Slaymaker suddenly began to feel rather self-conscious about his father’s undeniable obsession with collecting cheap junk, like the lop-sided candelabra, the stringless cello, and the balding stuffed wood duck. Could the paint be seen chipping off the snuff-box?
“May I ask where you acquired such a priceless object?” the gypsy pressed.
Austin cleared his throat. “Er…it was…a gift.”
“From some prestigious personage, no doubt?” the interrogator deducted.
“Why, naturally,” Slaymaker huffed in a self-important manner. “By George, I…I…”
“Er…uh…as you say…”
“Magnificent!” Demifrere exclaimed. “To have someone honored by royalty in my humble presence!”
There little discourse was interrupted as two stretchers bearing the injured matadors were carried down to the cells. “They….they’ve had they’re turn already?” Austin queried uneasily.
The gypsy nodded and a little sigh escaped him. “Shame, shame.” He then slapped Slaymaker on the back and urged him forward, in spite of the fact that Austin’s feet seemed intent on standing fast in their place.
Staggering unwillingly into the arena, Slaymaker found himself face to face, eye to eye, with the large, increasingly angry bull. He slowly paced back and forth trying to avoid the bull while thinking of a way to get himself out of this unpleasant situation.
All of sudden, a shot rang out, and a group of French soldiers appeared at the main entrance of the arena. The shot startled the bull, which began to chase Slaymaker around the arena. The people in the bleachers began to panic and headed en masse for the exits, trampling one another in the process. Spanish soldiers, posted at the arena to keep the peace, began to engage the French soldiers. Shots whizzed over the heads of the fleeing crowd.
Jane rushed down to the edge of the arena and began following Slaymaker, at break-neck speed, around the arena. “Climb the wall, you dunderhead!” she panted, only to have him ignore her. Instead be began to toss her all of his worldly possessions – his pocket watch, his cufflinks, his snuff box – with instructions to Jane to pass them on to his beloved papa, in the event of his inevitable removal from the realm of mortal existence.
Then Jane had a moment of genius. She reached into her uniform and pulled out the violet mantilla Slaymaker had given her and threw it over the wall of the arena. It landed squarely on the bull’s grimy face, sticking to it and blocking its vision.
The bull veered towards Slaymaker, but missed turning him into a shish kebab by a fraction of an inch. Instead, one of its horns caught onto the edge of Austin’s sash, whirled him around several times, and then charged off in the opposite direction. The sudden jerking motion flung him across the bull’s back, just as he galloped towards a group of French soldiers.
Their officer and a handful of the Frenchmen met a sorry fate, whilst the surviving soldiers were scattered in terror. They began running in all directions in hopes of evading the angered bull and its seemingly super-human rider, who was now upright, clinging to the horns with all his might.
The chase led them up into the stands, down into the cellars, back across the arena, back into the stands, back across the arena, out into the streets, back across the arena, down into the cellars, back in the stands, and finally ending up in the streets, with the bull falling over exhausted, and Slaymaker laying prostrate on top of it, totally blacked out. The remaining French soldiers returned in terror to their transport ship.
“Austin! Are you alright?” asked Jane in a worried tone, rousing him from his unconscious state.
“Is it morning already?” Slaymaker responded blearily. Then he realized he was lying on top of an unconscious bull, and quickly leapt up and stepped away. He grinned and handed Jane back her mantilla. “Just a bit of a jog-and-ride to start the day off, what?”
Jane shook her head and reciprocated by dumping his pocket-watch, cufflinks, and snuffbox on the ground. “Well, here’s your stuff back, anyway.”
By Byrnwiga & Rosaria Marie