THE INSURGENCE of CHAN SANTA CRUZ

 

BOOK FOUR:  THE BOOK of SCIENCE

 

CHAPTER THIRTY NINE

 

          José's next stop was the salon of Roberto Urzaiz... for Rigoberto, upon whom he had depended for counsel, had telegraphed from New Orleans that he would disembark at Campeche and follow the Presidential party from that port. Worse, Rigoberto inferred that José exerted an unwise influence upon his father, whose expenses mounted against another likely decline in revenues for the upcoming year. "You have captured Father's mind with memories of times and manners that have changed forever," Rigoberto's message hectored. "It is not 1876, nor even 1899."

          José was mortified, but attributed the ill-tempered communication to some crisis, certainly financial, that had unhinged Rigoberto (by, of course, reducing the allowance from home that had sustained his European adventures), so he was dismayed that Urzaiz was also contemptuous of the occasion.

          "Your brother is a very wise man," Roberto allowed, "as much a sage in matters of finance, the law and politics as you were in the field. I wholly concur with his objections. Those who shaped the previous century... capably, we must certainly admit... have aged and weakened; a new generation is arising everywhere to meet the demands of this new century. Yucatan cannot be any different. This squandering of cash in homage to a Mexican President, who is also of this dying generation, may be excused as the death-rattle of the Porfirismo, and we can only hope that it shall not also be the ruin of our own when the inevitable succession occurs in four years.

          "Honestly... do you believe that Don Porfirio is not aware of this? Oh he will smile and bow, the old fox, he'll kiss the withered hands of the beauties of his youth, he will remember Queretaro in fine speeches that may even evoke the memory of Juarez whom, as you know, he hated and would have overthrown if that liberator's time on this earth were longer. But, as the few of us who are reasonable men in this city are no stronger than a few twigs being carried along by the tide, let us put our heads together with those of your father's generation who have not forfeited their spirit, and devise a means by which the President, while going back to the capital with the indubitable conviction that Yucatecans are still the fools they were half a century ago, may nonetheless hear a few, firm replies by those he will consequently measure as the voices of the future."

          "I may be only be a former soldier," José demurred, "however, it is strange to me that you should bear such distrust of President Diaz and his circle while, at the same time, upholding his vision of progress through science. It is right to champion these ideals... I am not raising this to give offense. I am, rather, perplexed."

          "Oh my," the Hermano Mayor despaired, checking his calendar. "Well, I have no appointments this afternoon, and I suppose this is as good a time as any. Only this calls for sherry... Sergeant!" he called and Trona, in his baggy uniform, poured two glasses for the young montes, leaving the decanter upon the table.

          "Now, I welcome your questions, José, it is evidence that your mind has not yet completely turned to gunpowder or, this past year, to rope. And, although these are not the easiest of times, you have done well at Idznacab, certainly better than I could have managed. But matters here are not so simple and there are things that, at first, will seem contradictory but, in fact, are logical developments of an irrefutable certainty which even Porfirio Diaz, who is, at the least, a personally honest man, would agree with."

          Urzaiz rolled a measure of the Spanish sherry about to re-moisten his tongue; directed José's attention to a venerable metal breastplate seeming to date back to the seventeenth century... even, perhaps, the sixteenth. "The history of Mexico, and Yucatan not discounted, progress is and always has been an unrelenting struggle between the civilized and the barbaric from the time Montejo and Cortes planted the flag and ideals of Europe on this soil. The savagery they found... an exceedingly refined savagery, if you can conceive of such a paradox... this is Mexico's original sin. It is as native to the soil as the corn and henequen plant. And because our Iberian ancestors were Christian and civilized, they did not exterminate the indian as the British and the others who formed that ever-rapacious nation to our north did... they, rather, Christianized these people, to the degree such a thing may be possible. But even in the most respectable of them, such as Diaz, you always sense a presence of those bloody gods always with us, their force perhaps diminished or concealed but, nonetheless, always at hand, waiting, a snake poised beneath the plumeria tree. In fact we are a jungle, the heart of the nation beating like a forest in which beautiful flowers are to be found among the bushes and thorns, but flowers guarded by the viper and the jaguar, swarming with insects and vermin, nourished by a poisoned Well of Sacrifice. It is the charge to civilized men to clear this forest, and if it so requires him to use ruthless means to plant his corn without forfeiting his own soul, well, this shall be our burden."

          José started at the latter for, with the exception of the first unfortunate runaway whose death could be excused as one of those accidents that happen from time to time, he had been careful to hide his subsequent crimes from all but Armando Feliz.

          "This work of cleansing is still far from completed," Roberto continued, giving no notice that he had distressed his brother Caballero, "and while that is done we have need of men like Porfirio Diaz. More to the point, we have to find that which is like Don Porfirio in ourselves, and use this wisely against the relentless forces of collapse. Sargento... my gato del monte, if you will."

          Sergeant Trona unlocked one of the two great glass fronted armoires, removing an exquisitely fashioned tiger, or jaguar, carved from a block of smooth black flint, or obsidian, with tiny gold teeth and eyes and spots of pale jade - a tiger such as might prowl a world where colors are reversed like photographic negatives, an underworld.

          "You know, don't you, that the barbaric tribes that populate this peninsula and the Maya nations to the south had already fallen into disrepair by the time of Montejo's coming; that, in warring with one another, they had so exhausted themselves that their towns, unlike Tenochtitlán, which was taken only with great loss and the hand of Providence, were largely deserted and the indians so spiritually bereft that they welcomed the foreigners as their deliverers, not conquerors. So it is possible that Mexico will be tamed one day and this will happen neither too early nor too late, but at the time that its men of progressive vision impose their culture... rather like that iron lid that is rung down upon a bubbling cauldron of lies and superstition. Yes... but whether Yucatan shall be a part of that Mexican scientific empire, when the time does come, or whether we must find our own way... that is what our pretty oracles of politics and commerce do not tell us."

          "Pardon, but I thought that question to have been settled decisively half a century ago," José objected.

          "Questions of national destiny... and those of the people within nations who feel themselves to be unnaturally yoked to a contrary ox... these are never settled by temporary military fortunes," Roberto answered, bouncing the little tiger in his palm. "The United States remains whole through its military force, but can you say that there is, or will ever be, a peace between its northern and southern states, or its European and African population... to say nothing of the destiny of its lands stolen from Mexico. Even the European empires... whose great thinkers we revere, who promulgate ideal that we poor Mexicans strive for like indians wondering at a steam-engine... they've not achieved stability. Think of the German and Italian states. When men of reason cannot come to accommodation, what of the destinies of men of lower birth? The separados of 1847 utterly neglected to consider that liberty, like smallpox, is a contagious thing, even if the only liberty that the peon can conceive is that to eat and drink his fill, and kill his masters when their oppression becomes intolerable. If this were a world," he sighed, "where each would do his duty and receive his just reward without resort to force, it would be closer to that Garden from which the ancestors of us all were expelled for disobedience. But expelled we were, so is not! The savage instinct lies just beneath the surface of this land the way that its foundations are corrupted by its caves and tunnels."

          Roberto now called for the Sergeant to replenish his glass, and that of José. "You have met the Commander, a proud, sober man. "Were you acquainted with the matter of his daughter?"

          "I do not traffic in gossip," the Captain responded.

          "Pity. A little knowledge," said the Hermano Mayor, "can be held back until circumstances make it profitable to be employed. Let me explain. This happened three years ago, while you were in the territory... although its origins go back further; all the way, in fact, to the Fin del Siglo. Some bandits influenced a few of our public officials to remain bewildered while they carried off a certain cargo of money, arms and liquor, all of which were plentiful during the festivities. The celebration over and the new century having arrived, these fellows showed no inclination to return to work and chose instead to found a veritable Olympus of crime or, rather, a Hades, since it existed beneath these very streets."

          And Roberto Urzaiz pointed towards the floor with his black tiger.

          "These enterprising criminals uncovered a spring of the purest water, they tapped into the new electrical power network, bribing its guardians to supply their lair with the means to illuminate their Stygian kingdom. Masters of murder and disguise, they held the city at their mercy for a time but, as all evildoers eventually must, belief in their own invincibility led to their undoing. So the leader of this gang, his name is of no matter... we may call him Pluto... had the Commander's daughter kidnapped and brought her to the center of the caverns to reign with him as his Persephone. He thought, you see, that the Commander was like ordinary policemen in that, if he could not be bought, he could be frightened into allowing this gang to continue its ever-escalating depravities.

          "And now here's where the demarcation starts to blur. Only a few of us know that the Commander did try to reconcile the matter. He wrote the Minister of War to grant the bandit king a pardon and a Colonel's rank in either the Rurales or regular Army... Pluto was not altogether unreasonable, he had a fair sprinkling of European blood and enough common sense to be able to accept a list of those whom he must not trouble in return for a free hand with the rest. But he had not given consideration to the señorita, who flourished in the dark... both moral and physical... like a newly-hatched owl. For sixteen years she had been a perfectly ordinary daughter of a widower of the upper military class. We know that sort well! Suddenly, however, another world beneath the streets of Merida had opened to her and our Persephone was reborn as a queen of spiders, against whom our poor Pluto was helpless. He could not surrender her embraces even to save his own life... or hers.

          "Well you know what had to follow. When the Comandante learned that he had lost his only child to this bandit, nothing could stand in the way of the detection and the destruction of Pluto's lair, no matter what certain formalities such as exist between bandits and the police must be broached. Inevitably, the criminal element threw up its hand and betrayed its own. It happened like this..."

          Roberto refreshed himself with the sherry and folded his hands over the tiger, the window at his back admitting the lengthening shadows of a January afternoon that made him seem older than his years. "Three of the gang were responsible for the disappearance of nearly all of the pigs from a certain section of Merida. An hour before dawn, they emerged from their warrens, attired in the uniforms of street cleaners with a barrel of water mounted upon their cart. Encountering a pig, they would first look about to be sure the street was clear of witnesses, then seize it, place the animal head downwards in the barrel to be drowned and continue upon their way. When the barrel was full, they would retire to a building these bandits employed, remove their uniforms, and descend steps leading to a tunnel, through which the porkers were be brought to Pluto's fire.

          "One morning, these ladrones were spied by an old woman at her window, who notified the Comandante directly, or the matter would not have been given attention. A trap was set and, within a few days, the bandits had been captured with their evidence and brought into the presence of the Comandante, before whom they had the good sense to escape the Penitenceria or even the rope by drawing him a map through the network of caverns that would lead to its infernal heart. This transaction concluded, the Commander personally led fifty men down into the labyrinth, but they were still at disadvantage and were fired upon by the bandits, including the bewitched Pluto and the Comandante's daughter, whose proclamations of undying love for her criminal paramour and for her life of darkness echoed through the tunnels and reached her father's ears."

          "What did he do?" José now asked.

          "Well if the matter is brought up, it is asserted that the Comandante, learning that his Persephone had already succumbed to the unhealthy climate of the caves, destroyed the robbers in their lair. The truth is a more perplexing thing, for, in the courts, a few judges, and a few of the attorneys and the guard who was among the punitive expedition recall that the Comandante... no doubt with a tear in his eye that none could detect for the darkness of this place... set dynamite at all approaches to the central cavern and thus made a tomb for one and all, including his own child. His duty to the law and to civilization was a thing stronger than his love for his own daughter." Roberto now sipped at his sherry and José, whose throat had tightened, followed suit. "Were I a father, I have wondered whether I could do the same. The evil that underlies our pretense as these caverns beneath the simple streets of our diaritud... our dailyness... concealed a gang of criminals, is often intimate. The civilizing fire that purifies our barbaric origins can bring unspeakable agonies."

          The young Epicurean now unclasped his hands and a more genial expression overtook him. Roberto rose and stretched and, handing the tiger over for José's inspection, drew the shades against the gathering of twilight, bringing to life with a flick of his finger an electric lamp overhead.

          "Civilization!" he proclaimed. "Now let us bring all of our attention to the task at hand. First - what is our objective? We are agreed that the attendance of the President... and, of course, the absence of unfavorable circumstances... is what we are seeking?"

          "Correct," said José.

          "Now as to the second of these, we are doing what we can. We have not the funds such as the Governor possesses to dazzle the Presidential party with spectacle, we are constrained to the traditional offering of good food, wines and spirits in moderation... the President detests a drunkard... and music that is lively without becoming obtrusive. Certainly, what is of the greatest importance is a company that is at the same time amiable and stimulating. Porfirio Diaz is not coming to Merida to be offended nor bored... the Legislature shall provide him with enough of that on Monday.

          "If we secure the President's attendance, we may hold him no longer than half an hour, for the streets will be busy and his official duties will be many, and beginning early, particularly Thursday morning. He will already have inspected the lunatic asylum and an elementary school before taking his position upon the reviewing stand when the parade begins at noon. So he will retire early on Wednesday, no later than midnight, and he will not have had time to attend more than five or six of the twenty funciónes that evening."

          "We have already figured that out, Father and I," José responded. "But which of those twenty?"

          He motioned to Sergeant Trona who returned the tiger to its shelf and poured another inch of the Spanish sherry.

          "A souvenir of Pluto's brief, unhappy regime which I acquired from a fortunate policeman, for a consideration," Urzaiz winked. "So... let us consider your competitors," Roberto said, placing his glass on the desk with a distinct knock. "So many of the montes are spending themselves into ruin that, when Diaz is gone, only the debris will remain of their estates. But the President is too old and too experienced to be distracted by their baubles in the way that infants are. All they'll have earned is the President's contempt, for Molina will certainly report to him, later, of their predicament and the two of them will share a chuckle at our expense. Look at the Betancourt-Montez family, those poor, aging leprous dandies! There's a reason why their doors will not be opened and it's not disease... the old man's all but bankrupt. Believe me, I know these things. Now, Don Antonio is not so gullible as these others, which means that... beyond the necessities which I have mentioned... our little función is apt to appear a little shabbier than many. If you could reason with your father... but he prizes his status as the patron of a fine estanción and would have the Governor, and maybe even Don Porfirio himself, come, eat a tortilla of Idznacab corn and drip beans over their clothes. That's not going to happen, Diaz will be escorted to one of Molina's own places which has been fixed up like a stage set at the Teatro San Carlos, by the way. I don't mean to offend, but we have to face facts, and if truth may not be laid out between friends, then it is a poor world that we inhabit."

          "I appreciate your frank concerns," said José. "Our función may not offend the President, nor anybody else, it exists... first and last... to display our patriotic sentiment for both the state and Republic and, after that, if the President or his Ministers take note of our small selves, that is to be counted an additional blessing."

          "Again," Roberto deliberated, "we have to supply... in the person and presence of guests who will stimulate the President without bringing disgrace... what we cannot hope to match in rude pageantry. You're off to a good start with the Comandante... of course I needn't tell you never to bring up the matter of his daughter, save as the last resort."

          "Before coming here, I wired Santa Cruz del Bravo, making a point that the General's presence was not only welcome but expected. It sometimes helps to take that tone with Bravo."

          "Then he will come?"

          "He had already decided to," José responded without a sign of ruefulness. "Of course he will follow the President around, but he may put in a word for us with Don Porfirio or, more likely, with the Minister of War. That's just as well."

          "Alright." Roberto removed a paper from its drawer and dipped a pen in ink, writing one word across the top of the parchment. "We have a military presence. Now these invitations you are sending... of course there is the usual crowd and your Father's friends, some of those may show up just for the opportunity to argue with Diaz and we have to be careful about that. But, by this time, the President will perhaps have had his fill of sycophants. Remember what I have told you about the coming generation, the educated and the professional classes. It may be... it just may, and this is no guarantee... that Don Porfirio will have long sated himself with the flatteries of a seedy aristocracy spending its last pesos, even borrowed ones, in the hope of obtaining favors to extend a way of life that is behind us. What, really, can the President do about the price of Philippine hemp? Let him hear something new. Vincenzo Gaspar, the importer of motorcars, he's a man with dirt under his fingers, but it is the grime of progress. Martinez, the professor of mathematics and that one, he's..." and Roberto snapped his fingers, trying to remember... "I'll get the name for you, he's using the new methods of training teachers. Doctor Toscino, I've heard Diaz likes the Italians. Anyway, these are people who will not put him to sleep before his time."

          Urzaiz continued writing names upon his paper, including notes where he could not remember a name. "I'll have others for you by tomorrow. Don Antonio must help see to it that they appear... then we let those around the President know and after that things take care of themselves."

          "And these are not people who hold separatist views?" José asked.

          "Some may," the attorney admitted, "others do not. But don't worry, the thing is that they are not foolish... besides, who'd insult the President unless they were thinking of an extended journey to the Territory, eh? We all have to get along for the time being, anyway. Now... if you are still in need of evidence as to what is arrayed against us, I'd advise you to pay a visit to Nopal, which is the place Don Olegario has prepared for the President's taste. As a matter of fact, I've already obtained an invitation for O'Reilly's tour, which is to be a sort of rehearsal for the President's visit. I'll get one for you. It will be both educational and amusing. You've been out in the territory so long, then stuck at Idznacab, that maybe you haven't kept up with what is happening in society here, at least as the Governor would have it seen. Remember, Diaz is bringing the press not only of the capital but all of Mexico, and even some of the foreign agencies. Nopal will shake the sand out of your eyes!"

 

RETURN to HOMEPAGE – “THE INSURGENCE of CHAN SANTA CRUZ”

 

RETURN to GENERISIS HOMEPAGE