THE INSURGENCE of CHAN SANTA CRUZ

 

BOOK FOUR:  THE BOOK of SCIENCE

 

CHAPTER TWO

 

          That sleepy American, Edwin Wilson, had arrived in Merida a week previously and friends of the Governor had responded to his request to see the state by persuading several of the larger estanciónes to offer two or three days' hospitality to this agent of the firm of Wrigley in Chicago, Illinois. The country to the north had adopted the chewing of "Yucatan gum" as a habit, and there scarcely was enough to satisfy the Yankee jaws, let alone those of Europeans whom, Wilson predicted, would soon come under the spell of the ooze of the sapodilla. José thought of Pieter Wallen, but considered it better not to speak of him before he understood the distinction between Wilson, Wrigley and the Belgians. The American had been most forthcoming about the regard which his countrymen held for the chicle. He had even shown advertisements in some English language magazines to don Antonio and José the previous evening; one cartoon being of a young man in a grey suit and showing many fine teeth who had just delivered a kick to the back of a woman with curly hair. "And here's the message," Wilson pointed to the words to the advertisement, "I get a kick from gum."

          The elder Macias had nodded and stroked his chin, taking the magazine in his hand to inspect the illustration. He pointed to the drawing. "And our gum causes a man to do this?" he asked.

          "No, of course not," Wilson demurred, "it's only an advertisement," and he said this with such self-conviction that don Antonio had nodded again and returned the drawing. It seemed some kind of joke known to Americans, and he would only appear foolish if he asked whether such behavior was considered proper in Illinois and, if not, whether the chewing of gum made it the more tolerable... the way that Indians who killed one another after drinking on fiesta days were treated less severely than those who did so in sobriety.

          Now the chicle agent had, indeed, arisen and was sitting in the patio in his robe, enjoying the sweet rolls prepared by don Antonio's housekeeper with his coffee. He greeted father and son and spread his hand, bidding them be seated at their own table.

          "Are they going to burn again?" asked Wilson brightly as breakfast was brought for don Antonio and José.

          "This is our time of year for that," don Antonio said, biting the end off of a roll.

          "Remember," said the Yankee, "I was promised the opportunity to see these men at their work."

          "If you wish. There is a cart I must repair, since I cannot trust another to do it for me. For some reason or other, these indians will have nothing to do with a wheel," sighed don Antonio. "I'd better do it now, before the sun is high, and afterwards we'll go."

          It was eleven by the time the wheel had been repaired. A horse was brought for Wilson and José observed that the chicle agent was a fair rider, although inclined to be heavy with his hands. The wind still blew an occasional spark towards the house and they rode with their heads low through the smoke, guiding their mounts around patches of earth still smoldering. At length they reached unburned ground behind a line of fire, a field which had been planted for four years and was being allowed to grow over and regenerate. Here, the mayordomo, Armando Feliz, had established camp. Black beans bubbled in an iron kettle over a fire and there was a pot of coffee waiting for the visitors; although the cups were tin, not British china. Some tree stumps served them as seats and Wilson peered through the haze at the short, round figures picking their way through the smoke and rubble like creatures from a bad dream.

          "They certainly move slowly, don't they?" Wilson told the mayordomo. Feliz shrugged and pointed to the earth.

          "It is hot there, señor, very very hot. They must be careful where they step... their boots, you see, are not like yours, they are not boots at all."

          José's eyes watered in the thin gray haze. Where the burning was actually taking place, darker clouds swirled hither and thither at the caprice of the wind. He spat on the ground, disgusted with his lot. He was a man of substance, a retired and decorated officer. In Merida he would, at this hour, be dining in the restaurant of the Gran Hotel or the Club Wien, surrounded by the fawning Caballeros - dazzled with his memories of exploits in Quintana Roo. On Saturday there would be dancing in the evening, following the bullfight. Instead, he was sitting in the smoky pall of Idznacab, listening to the prattle of a ridiculous American buyer of chewing gum, fascinated by the tedious labor of indians which had not changed in hundreds of years.

          Compared to Idznacab, José reflected, even the Territory was a place of the twentieth century.

          So - on the eve of his departure José, sorting those works he would keep from those to be given away, remembered, once again, the offer made by Pieter Wallen of Brussels following upon the story of the Sad Indian.

          "There is no assurance that the texture of chewing gum, or its taste, will be improved by the cultivation of the hands that collect it," the crafty Bravo had acknowledged, "but I can assure you that Santa Cruz del Bravo will rightfully take its place as a city among the foremost of the Americas, a place without comparison to any other and that," he smiled, "the world will have proof enough of this when this gentleman here brings our enterprise to the World Fair in St. Louis." And the General nodded impressively for Pieter Wallen to make his feelings known.

          "The General is bound to this place by his duty. He implied, however, that a young man starting out in the commercial world could use some help in acquiring introductions to those who might be of benefit to him, while helping me promote a commodity that is showing..." and Wallen flashed his dirty teeth "...great promise in the United States, where Wrigley Incorporated has assumed predominance, but also for the European markets."

          "Is this an offer of employment?" José asked, causing the Belgian to nod with enthusiasm.

          José sighed, composing himself for it appeared that the General had extended some proposal to the evil-smelling little man, and it was seemingly bound up in some scheme Bravo had for the advancement of the Territory. To incautiously bring this to ruin would bring the Captain an enemy that he did not desire.

          "Perhaps I have not made clear my course of action upon the conclusion of my service," he said cautiously. "Our family possesses an estanción in Yucatan which has, for many years, delivered sisal to Merida for the making of rope, which is exported out of Progreso. My only brother has long since commenced his professional career, and my father will not be able to run Idznacab forever." He opened his hands so that Bravo and the visitor could sense the regret with which he would decline their offer. "It is a family obligation..."

          "Well certainly a young man as yourself might keep a finger in any number of pies," Bravo protested. "Look at the interests of Governor Molina. That man's interests are everywhere! There's chicle to be had in Yucatan, too, isn't there?" He turned to the Belgian.

          "Not in that place of where the Captain speaks, if I understand correctly," said Wallen. "Your part of Mexico is tied to the production of rope, a very good business, for as long as evildoers exist, there will be need of ropes to hang them with. Isn't that so, Captain?"

          José almost wept with relief. "I'm afraid that you're right, sir." He saluted his General. "So long as you ever have need of a rope, Idznacab and José Macias will always be at your command. As for this other matter, I could perhaps intervene with Molina... but the Governor may not be a man whom either of you would wish to have an interest in Quintana Roo."

          "Indeed not!" Bravo declared. "He speaks otherwise, but give him time... when he has settled in, Molina will be bitten by the notion of reattaching the Territory to Yucatan and, for all I may understand, Campeche too. My territory! No, sir," he turned to the Belgian, "we are far better off without Governor Olegario Molina and his taxes. It's merely a pity that we couldn't have done business together," he said to José. "Perhaps we'll drop by the hospital later."

          "The regret is also mine." He took the hand of Pieter Wallen, letting his disgust mingle with the elation that felt at his escape, such balance resulting in a face which revealed nothing. "I wish you well in St. Louis," he said, "and if you also have need of a rope..."

          The Belgian giggled like woman. "Europe is civilized, sir, our age of crime and war is at an end. The great appetites of Mars have been sated forever by the Hapsburgs, and by the Treaty of Frankfort, sealing the doom of Napoleonic imperialism.  The twentieth shall be that century of the Pax Mundial, a worldwide flourishing of progress and brotherhood.  And chewing gum," Wallen added.

          "Let us part then, on the permanence of gum and of the peace, in both Europe and Mexico. I suppose it is the will of history that even old soldiers as we should end our days as men of commerce," Bravo sighed, and José Macias, saluting, fled the General's quarters as quickly as he could, pausing only to throw his head back on the porch, follow the whirling stars with an offended eye, and give thanks for the providence of his escape - a liberty to potentially be compromised by the manifestation of Wilson upon his return home.

 

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