Genre / Subject / Character
Historical Fiction / Masked Party / Crewman
February 14, 1898
As the glow of sunset faded from the bright stone buildings of Cuba’s capital, newly minted Master at Arms on the USS Maine, Robert Forrest, disembarked with five fellow officers at a seedy Havana ports. Though their plans for the evening were festive, the officers’ spirits sank as they took in the gaunt, sickly faces that crowded the windows of rickety boarding houses near the harbor. Outside the houses, Spanish soldiers enforced a curfew for the Cubans, which the American officers could ignore. Robert looked disdainfully at the decorative blue mask in his hand. He felt ridiculous attending such a frivolous event as a masked ball with everything that was happening on this island.
When the assignment had been given, though, their mission had seemed simple: Act as escorts for a contingent of young ladies and their parents attending a ball at the sugar cane growers’ guild hall, while keeping an eye out for rebel kidnappers. There was, in fact, minimal chance of kidnapping this far into the city, but these rich farmers were taking no chances. They’d reached across the gulf to American friends, and now here were respectable escorts in their dress uniforms, with dashing navy-blue masks to boot.
As the six crewmen walked away from the docks, shoddy tenements were replaced with expensive manor houses, far from the crowded refugees. They approached a street lined with horses and cabs, beyond which were several groups of finely dressed locals. The ladies among them were conspicuous in their elegant white dresses, with long, white gloves covering bare arms.
While his crewmates headed straight for the ladies, Robert noticed a group of what must have been their fathers, who looked disapprovingly at the approaching officers. Robert changed direction and approached them. He introduced himself, and, in the poor Spanish translation a fellow officer had provided, asked if he and the other “ship people” might have the “big happy” of escorting they and their families to the “covering ball.” A moment passed before the men burst out laughing at his ridiculous Spanish. Despite his embarrassment, Robert saw a relaxation of their shoulders and a softening of their expressions as they patted his shoulder and made fun of his translation skills.
From behind these men came a beautiful woman in a light blue mask, who had been standing separate from the other ladies. She approached Robert and took his arm with firm intention. He barely remembered to doff his service cap and nod to her. She turned and curtsied to one of the men Robert had addressed. “Papá,” she said brightly, “Estoy lista.” With a twinkle in his eye, her father nodded back to her. With that the woman spun on her heels and began walking, towing Robert along with a vice-like grip on his arm.
Before Robert knew it, the woman had waved off the waiting cabs and began walking towards the hall, pulling him along beside her. He looked back to see the rest of the party follow suit. He glanced at her profile, wondering if he could keep up all night with this determined lady.
It took a minute for Robert to sync with her quick pace. She barely looked at him as she headed briskly towards the sounds of merriment to the east. So, he spent the first few minutes doing what his orders prescribed: searching the darkening streets for rebel fighters who might whisk the woman away. As he sized her up, though, Robert wondered if he was even necessary. The woman emitted confidence and strength with every step. Robert believed any rebel seeing them stride through the city would think twice before kidnapping her.
“Do you speak English?” Robert said suddenly.
“Yes, of course,” she said, more softly than her demeanor would imply.
“I see,” Robert cleared his throat. “Might I ask your name, ma’am, so I know what to call you?”
“Si,” she replied. “I am Maria Cecilia Jiminez de Cordova.”
“Oh, okay,” Robert stammered. “Do I, I mean, should I call you Maria?”
“You may call me Cecilia, but only if you give me your name in return.” At this she slowed a bit, focusing her attention on Robert instead of on reaching the ball.
“Thank you, ma’am, I mean, Cecilia. My name is Robert.” Though she gave him an encouraging smile, he saw that he must have failed to pronounce her name correctly. “Thay-theel-ya,” she said slowly, patting his arm with each syllable.
“Say, uh, Thay-theel-ya,” he replied.
“Si, Roberto!” Cecilia’s eyes widened with delight as she squeezed his arm.
They soon reached the sturdy guild hall, which had been brightened for the event with twinkling candelabra. It seemed to be filled with the sounds of music and laughter as well.
They joined the long receiving line out front, donning their masks as they did. As they waited and chatted about inconsequential things, Robert felt that the forward woman who’d chosen him at the merchant’s building had softened considerably in their short walk together.
An hour into the party Cecelia’s cramping hands told her she hadn’t let go of Roberto’s arm since she’d taken it back at home. While he now spoke with a friend of her father, she surreptitiously released him. The minute her hands were free she crossed them in front of her. If she’d done anything else, she worried people might see them shaking.
Two months earlier, when her Mexican cousins had asked her to be a courier for rebel funds from the U.S., she was told it would be easy to be a spy. A spy was just a messenger, and she’d always been good at passing along secrets to particular individuals when it would help her family’s interests. Now, instead of just helping her family, she was helping the entire isla de Cuba.
As she stood nervously clutching her arms to her chest and eyeing the other attendees, she considered which of them would be her counterpart, the courier who would trade her packet of stocks and bonds for cash and guns.
“Are you cold, Cecilia?” She came out of her reverie to see Roberto looking at her with concern from behind his dashing, dark blue mask.
She rubbed her arms to fake a chill and said, “Si, hace frio.” For a moment she thought she’d broken the poor officer. He looked startled, unsure of how to help. “Perhaps we go to a salon, over there,” she suggested, pointing to the room where she was to leave the package. “There is a fire there.”
Robert looked puzzled for a moment before he relaxed and said, “You mean a fireplace? Sure, let’s do that.” This time he offered her his arm before she could grab it. They smiled at each other and made their way across the crowded room.
“Sorry, Cecilia. I’m being rude.” Roberto stood from a low stool, where he’d been sitting near the fireplace. “I have no right to tell you how to run your country.” The pair had passed simple pleasantries when they first entered the cozy room, but soon Robert’s inquisitiveness had come to the fore, and he’d asked Cecilia about her country’s troubles.
Cecilia laughed with real amusement. “Ah, mi amigo, then you would be the first foreigner to not do so!”
Roberto shrugged and sat back down. “It’s just that I don’t see how you can stand living here, day after day in this city, as the citizens are tortured and starved by the Spanish!”
“Calma, Roberto,” Cecilia patted his arm. Being alone with him for the past hour, talking as seriously as they had, now engendered a certain closeness. “Firstly, I don’t live here at all times. I spend part of the year at a family home in Oaxaca, Mexico. So, I don’t see all this tragedy each day of the year.” She leaned back against the stone surround of the fireplace as she sat beside it. “Hmm…that sounds uncaring. It is not meant to be, however.” Roberto nodded with understanding.
Just a few minutes after they’d entered the room, Cecilia had been able to feel the loose brick in the fireplace behind her back. All she’d had to do was send Roberto to get her some wine. As soon as he left she’d reached under her prodigious skirts and removed the slim package from its hidden fold of fabric. She’d stashed it quickly and easily, then sat there, marveling at the relief she felt. Once Roberto had returned, their conversation flowed more easily once she felt she could relax.
“Secondly, there are many…untraditional ways for families like mine to help other Cubanos.” As Roberto nodded along, Cecilia surmised he was taking her words at face value, assigning them no subversive meaning. He may someday, she thought, but not tonight. It seemed her mask was good for more than mere decoration.
It was then she noticed the shadow of a figure in the doorway behind Roberto. Panic set in. Had she incriminated herself in front of a member of the Spanish elite? Roberto saw her gaze and turned to face the door as he stood. Cecilia rose, keeping the American between herself and the stranger.
“Ah, mein Freunde!” An older German man, who’d chatted the couple up early in the evening, entered the room. He held a match to the end of a cigar between his lips. He smiled at them after lighting it, his eyes crinkling with amusement behind an elaborate gold mask. “You have found a nice, warm room, ya?” Cecilia smiled politely as she and Roberto moved away from the fireplace. “Do not let me interrupt you,” he said, despite continuing further into the room.
“We were just leaving,” Roberto said, as he offered Cecilia his arm once more. She took it without a word, and they made to rejoin the party.
“Be sure to get a cigar on your way out,” the German man said. He rolled his cigar between his fingers, gazing at it approvingly. “The Cubans make them the best, do they not?”
As she lingered in the doorway, Cecilia saw the man actually staring at that brick. Before the fear had a chance to grip her heart, however, he shot her a quick look, then winked.
“I can’t believe you didn’t get your chiquita‘s address,” said Robert’s crewman, Nathan Williams, as they dared to smoke their cigars on the ship. They’d crept quietly to the aft deck and now leaned against a rail, watching the Havana skyline. Robert had tossed their masks into the silent sea as Nathan lit the stogies. “My Marisol must have really been angling for an American soldier, because she had hers all written out for me before our first dance.”
“I’m not worried,” Robert replied. “Sounds like she helps her father at that guild hall a lot, so I’m sure I’d find her there if I want to.”
“Oh, if you want to!” said Nathan as he applied a good-natured elbow to Robert’s ribs.
“Lieutenant, where are Williams and Forrest?” In the quiet of the night, they heard the Senior Master at Arms’ voice from all the way up at the ship’s prow.
“Shit. Let’s go.” Nathan tossed his cigar overboard and headed forward.
“Are you crazy?” Robert whispered. “You throw away a good smoke like that?” Nathan flipped him the bird as he walked away.
Robert stubbed out the remains of his cigar and stowed it in his pocket.
“And don’t call her chiquita,” Robert whispered. “Her name is Cecilia.”
Headline, New York Journal
February 17, 1898
DESTRUCTION OF THE WAR SHIP MAINE WAS THE WORK OF AN ENEMY
Assistant Secretary Roosevelt Convinced the Explosion of the War Ship Was Not an Accident.
The Journal Offers $50,000 Reward for the Conviction of the Criminals Who Sent 258 American Sailors to Their Death. Naval Officers Unanimous That the Ship Was Destroyed on Purpose.
Copyright 2022 by Melani Weber