The Passing of a Dictator
The Passing of a Dictator
FOLK were sitting about the tables in the patio of the Hôtel de Jardine, sipping their afternoon coffee and turning the pages of the latest extras, ink-smeared with hectic headlines. Two children pushed a tin train of cars over one of the graveled paths beneath the patio oaks. Waiters drowsed by the kitchen corner, and the porter at the high doors giving on to the street had his head on his breast.
Then the Voice came. A murmur, far removed, muffled and indefinite—a murmur hardly to be distinguished above the plashing of the fountain; a minute and the timbre of it had strengthened and deepened; another minute and a crackling syncopation broke the monotony of sound. From afar the Voice spoke stronger and in a strange, animal note. Folk dropped their papers and started, heads cocked, to catch the meaning of the unwonted sound. Waiters moved away from the kitchen door out into the patio so that they could hear better. The two children piloted their train safely into the station by the goldfish pond, then sat with questioning eyes on the elders about them. Nearer and louder, louder, louder, sounded the Voice.
A nurse stepped out on the balcony above the patio and screamed as she ran down the stairs to the children. She gathered them into her arms and stumbled blindly back up the stairs, along the balcony, and into one of the suites opening thereon. Her scream, the agitation of her flying skirts, awoke the porter at the gate. For just an instant he sat still, his face puckered in puzzlement, then he jumped to the two high wooden gates giving on to the street, and slammed them shut. He slipped an oak beam through the hasps and double-braced the doors by other beams upended against the cobbles of the court-yard. The maitre d'hôtel had rushed out of his little glass office meanwhile, and was calling excitedly to the waiters; they sped through passageways, and their disappearances were followed by the banging of wooden shutters over windows, the slamming of doors, the frantic trundling of barricades into place. And then high over the clatter and the pounding the Voice snarled—a vicious, bestial snarl that was ear-filling and terrible.
The Voice was of the mob. On an afternoon in late May of 1911 Mexico City was rising against its master. Out of the kennels of mean streets, whose meanness marble palaces and flowering gardens screen, the canaille of the capital had come pouring, had whirled into mob coalescence, and now were baying and coursing the streets to seek the life of that master. Don Porfirio, the once beloved—Don Porfirio Diaz, dictator and builder of Mexico for more than thirty years—was the master.
All rules of psychology fall before the manifestations of the Latin-American temperament; so an attempt at analysis of the events of one hour in that May afternoon would be as bewildering to the Anglo-Saxon mind as the deciphering of Norse runes to a sign-painter. At four o'clock the capital of the republic was a city in order (though the north was in rebellion), President Diaz was supreme in his seat, and his hand was heavy over a populace still cowed through memory of the weight of that hand. At five o'clock Mexico City was in rebellion, savoring of the Terror, its streets were choked with the mob; and Diaz, the feared, was a fugitive from his people, besieged in his own house, with no barrier between himself and death but four slender lines of soldiery. One hour had served to pull down the whole fabric of a dictator's building. In one hour the people of the capital, who had cheered themselves hoarse just a year before when the head of the nation rode through the streets in the triumph of the Centennial, were whirled away in a blood-lust that drove them in solid masses of thousands against the barriers of the Calle Cadenas, where their President lay sick in his bed. Custom of years, instilled always through fear, and latterly, also, through an hysterical sort of affection for the strength of a strong man, had been dropped like a garment, and the mob, seeing its master falter, was ready to pull him down.
Porfirio Diaz in his age had been lulled out of his eternal vigilance by the flattery of sycophants, who cut his power from under him even while they glorified him with the tinsel and band-music of the Centennial celebration. The revolution of Madero, petty at first, grew to grave proportions. Too late the master of Mexico found that the strength that had stayed him for thirty-two years had gone. Five thousand revolutionaries had pressed to within two days' march of his capital, his army was unavailing, his one-time advisers had fled the city. He had announced in his extremity that before the end of May he would resign the Presidency. As the end of May approached, through some devious semi-official channel, information had been carried to the press that on the 24th Diaz would send his message of resignation to the Chamber of Deputies.
An orderly crowd of several thousand cluttered the streets leading to the marble Chamber that afternoon, waiting word from within the bronze gates that the dictator had abdicated. As the thousands waited, a few enthusiasts, still loyal to the weakening cause of the old warrior, wormed their way through the crowd, distributing dodgers, which urged that the Chamber of Deputies would seal the fate of Mexico if it accepted the resignation of Diaz. The temper of the crowd was not in sympathy with the call of the pamphlets; the distributors were hustled and their sheets trampled; an angry, muttering undertone sounded through the babble of voices. Then, a few minutes after four o'clock, just as the keeper of the Chamber doors swung open the bronze gates, one of the journalists from the press gallery, glorying in the opportunity to pose before the crowd, jumped out of the door, leaped to the top of the steps, and held up his hand for silence.
"A trick! A trick!" he exclaimed. "Diaz has not resigned. The old fox has fooled us again!"
That instant order disappeared and the flux of anarchy began.
There is something devilish in a mob's birth. Out of ten thousand conflicting spurs of action comes, in the snapping of a finger, a sinister unity of purpose, which knows not the individual brain that conceived it, nor the logic of its action. Ten thousand clods, jumbled in confusion, are instantly turned into a single straight furrow. Looking from a window of the Chamber of Deputies that afternoon, one saw the waving arms of the journalist messenger conjure a sprouting stubble of brandished arms over the field of hats up and down the Calle de Factor. For a minute there was a confused weaving of conflicting currents over all the crowd. Faces were seen to be disfigured by an infectious paroxysm of madness. Men stooped and clawed at the cobbles under their feet at the primal dictates of mob madness. Other men went racing from the fringes of the crowd into the side streets, eager to carry the flame to new tinder. Then came unity. Two barefooted women of the slums, their nakedness only half concealed by ragged coffee-sacks, and their Indian faces alight with savagery, held between them aloft on two sticks a piece of white bunting, upon which a lithograph likeness of Francisco Madero had been pasted. Slowly the two women began to pace through the swirling tides of humanity, rhythmically waving back and forth their banner of sedition. Men crowded for places behind them. Now the nascent procession was of three ranks, now of Ave, now it filled the street from curb to curb. The two women walked ahead and alone, screaming and singing in an intoxication of the mob call; behind them, the mob. The mob found voice, and it was a bestial, unhuman voice.
Quick as ever the thousands in front of the Chamber of Deputies found a singleness of purpose, recruits came by other thousands. Bricklayers clambered down from their scaffolds, carrying with them heavy staves and scantlings. Teamsters left their wagons in the middle of the streets, but brought their goods and whips. Even the beggars jumped from their nestling-places before the cathedrals and kept pace on bandaged feet. Catching the roar of the mob, storekeepers worked feverishly to pull down iron shutters before their plate windows, to barricade doors with heavy staves. Cocheros, knowing the vicious temper of the mob, whipped up their nags and skittered around corners in advance of the vanguard. Before the first of the marching thousands had turned into the broad Cinco de Mayo, lined with clubs and fashionable restaurants, the avenue was like a street in a besieged city. Yet still recruits came, smaller bodies of the riotous merged themselves with the greater band, and the course of the march was toward the Calle Cadenas, where in his bed lay the President who would not resign.
The early darkness of spring settled just as the parading thousands began to close in on the Calle Cadenas. Upon both flanks of the short street, where stood the marble house of the President, the assault was made. The first of the rabble to arrive found that a double line of the mounted gendarmes of the Federal District blocked entrance into the street at both ends; the uniformed cavalrymen sat their horses, knee to knee, with carbine-butts resting on their hips. The vanguard of the slow-moving procession pushed against the horses' breasts, recoiled, and was hurled by pressure from behind once more upon the double line of soldiers. There were shouts of individuals trampled, the flickering movement of men dodging hoofs, the quick snaffling of mounts made to close holes in the dike of resistance, and then the mob came to a halt. Just those double lines of armed horsemen at either end of a dark alleyway between walls—within the guarded space the marble house where Diaz lay—and stretching far at either end of the blocked thoroughfare the solid masses of humanity, inflexible, unreasoning, and mad with the lust for killing.
Then, finding itself temporarily checked, the mob bayed at the guarded President. Out of the roaring bass of the multitude treble shrieks were distinguishable. "Death to the tyrant!" "Death—death to Diaz!" Other voices taunted with vivas for Francisco Madero, vivas for the revolution. The jackals of the city, confident of security in the anonymity of the mob, bravely baited and insulted the old lion of Puebla, whose absolutism had been an ever-present terror for longer than a generation.
Minute by minute the temper of the mob grew more dangerous. When, after it had been held in check for half an hour or more, a troop of the Ninth Cavalry swung down through the Avenida San Juan Lateran and began to cleave a passage through the press to reinforce the gendarmes at the Calle Cadenas, a savage snarl of rage swept from block to block. A pistol-shot cracked over the solid pavement of heads, then another and another. Once more a concerted rush was made upon the guards, and they would have been swept back had not the troopers of the Ninth speared their way to the crumbling line of defense, and with flat sabers and gun-butts blunted the crest of the oncoming wave before its strength was irresistible. Porfirio Diaz, in the darkened house, heard the terrible mouthing of his people baffled.
Then the mob, cheated in its initial purpose, began to divert its energies into channels dictated only by sheer spur of lawlessness. In segments of tens of hundreds it split up and down its length, side streets became choked with slow-moving masses, and flying squadrons of roughs sped ahead of each band to do pillage wherever the menace of the advancing roar should drive shopkeepers to hasty refuge. Staves and beams nailed across store windows were wrenched off to serve as weapons. Where brick piles offered ammunition, there the gangs paused, and when they moved on again the piles had vanished. Occasionally came the tinkling of shattered glass, and at the crash the pack yelped and screamed. One band of several hundred marched to the office of El Imparcial, the government's organ. A volley of stones smashed every window facing the street; the crowd hooted. One of the black spaces representing a window spit a thin pencil of fire, and a peon in the mob clawed wildly at his neck for an instant and dropped. Then frenzy. Barrels and kindling from a building under construction near by were piled against the high doors giving to the court-yard, gasoline plundered from a garage was spilled upon the tinder, and the match struck. When a company of Bomberos came with its engine to the call of the flame's light, the engine was tipped over and the mob jeered.
But suddenly the far circle of the flame clipped sparks from steel, rising and falling. Down from the end of the street rode a squadron of gendarmes; sabers chopped on scattering heads viciously. The mob dissolved.
The city slipped closer to the Terror with the passing of the night hours. The failure of Diaz to send in his message had been the inciting cause of the rioting, but the mob that had seized upon that pretext for its inception, finding itself unopposed in the main, now asserted its will through promptings of insolence and the instinct for destruction. Street after street, upon which darkness had settled with the stoning of the arc lights, echoed with the clamor of marching thousands. The "Viva Madero!" came more and more insistently, and with the throaty hoarseness of a battle-cry. Wherever a company of the mounted gendarmes tried with careful patience to turn the head of a crowd away from one of the public buildings, it was met with jeers and was dared to draw guns and shoot. No strong hand of command was behind the gendarmerie; the mob knew that the strong hand of old was now palsied, and that there was none to give the accustomed merciless orders to slay.
It was ten o'clock, and the Plaza Zocalo, which lies before the great Cathedral of Mexico, was black with thousands. From every converging avenue more marching bands came to choke the plaza spaces. A single line of cavalry was drawn up before the façade of the new National Palace, opposite the Cathedral front. The horsemen sat immovable, by their presence denying the crowd only the right to rush the palace building. But that single denial was a defiance in the eyes of license. As the pack grew denser it moved closer upon the cavalry line. Insults and taunts failed to bring even a quiver to the arms that held rifles, butts down, on saddle-pommels. Tension grew, minute by minute. Of a sudden came the sharp crash of splintered glass, and the clatter of stones against the marble front of the Palace; half of the hundred windows on the plaza side were broken. The vicious roar of the crowd drowned an order that the commander of the cavalry troop gave, but rifles came down to bear on the black masses, and the quick recoiling of the mob's front sent a backward wave through the press. Yet those behind, who could not see the sudden menace, yelled again and sent another shower of stones against the white façade.
Then came the stab and bark of shots all down the line of the cavalry. One standing on the Cathedral steps at the mob's back saw the sudden, fiery lightning spurt forth, saw the great block of humanity waver, split in a dozen lines of cleavage like a plate of glass punctured, and then disintegrate. No longer the roar of insolent mastery; instead, shrill individual cries of terror and shrieks of pain sounded over the pounding of thousands of feet. The cavalry charged—a single, rigid line, moving like the cutting blade of a reaper. In five minutes the Plaza Zocalo was emptied. Only ten or a dozen sprawling blots on the pavements showed where the dead lay.
The city awoke to dread next morning. Still lawless bands paraded the streets. More men were shot—in front of the office of the Minister for Foreign Affairs and at the foot of the statue of Carlos IV. Up and down, past the flowering Alameda and in the Cinco de Mayo, tireless cohorts of the riff-raff from the slums made ceaseless pilgrimages behind improvised drum corps of oil-can beaters. Still Porfirio Diaz was President, and three hundred soldiers guarded his house.
At two o'clock in the afternoon, senators and deputies met in the Chamber of Deputies. All of the approaches to the Chamber were blocked by detachments of infantry and cavalry, which had been hurried into the city from the battle-ground of Morelos overnight. Back of the hedge of steel ten thousand rioters massed themselves in a circle about the meeting-place of the law-makers. The marble Chamber was practically under siege. Each senator and deputy as he came through the lanes of soldiery was admitted to the Chamber through a little postern gate, and crossed bayonets barred his passage until his identity was established. Within the shadowed congress-hall men walked on tiptoe and spoke in whispers; the heavy silence was punctuated by the rattle of gun-butts on the cobbles outside, and occasionally the dull diapason of the voice of the populace sounded, muffled by the walls. The speaker of the deputies ascended the rostrum and rapped with his gavel; the tapping of the little mallet was as startling as a pistol-shot. "Señores, a message from the President of the Republic," the speaker announced. The clerk stood in his place and began to read:
"Señores,—The Mexican people, who generously have covered me with honors, who proclaimed me as their leader during the international war, who patriotically assisted me in all works undertaken to develop industry and commerce of the Republic, establish its credit, gain for it the respect of the world and an honorable position in the concert of the nations; that same people has revolted in armed military bands, stating that my presence in the exercise of the supreme executive power was the cause of this insurrection.—"
A sick man in his bed, and with the roar of sedition in his ears, had reviewed the years of his building in his hurt pride.—
"I do not know of any facts imputable to me which could have caused this social phenomenon; but permitting, though not admitting, that I may be unwittingly culpable, such a possibility makes me the least able to reason out and decide my own culpability."
Therefore, the message continued, the President of the Republic had decided that to prevent the spilling of more blood he would lay his resignation before the representatives of the people. And in these final words Porfirio Diaz claimed the justice of a dispassionate judgment upon his dictatorship:
"I hope, Señores, that when the passions which are inherent to all revolutions have calmed, a more conscientious and justified study will bring to the national mind a correct acknowledgment, which will allow me to die carrying engraved in my soul a just impression of the estimation of my life, which throughout I have devoted and will devote to my countrymen."
There was silence then. Some shadow of the power that had been seemed to press upon the consciences of the people's delegates. A deputy moved the acceptance of the President's resignation, and the vote was polled. There were only two to dissent from the will of the majority—old men who had fought with Diaz against Maximilian, and had seen his triumph at Puebla. There was silence in the great hall even when the speaker announced that Porfirio Diaz was no longer President of Mexico. Suddenly a deputy jumped to his feet, and with a dramatic lifting of his hand he shouted: "President Porfirio Diaz is dead! Long live Citizen Porfirio Diaz!" Just at that instant a deep-throated shout sounded from the streets, where the news had carried, and the spell in the Chamber was broken. Delegates stood in their places and cheered madly; they embraced one another in quick Latin impulsiveness, eddied down the aisles to the street doors, singing the national anthem. Only two old men remained seated, heads bowed and tears dropping upon their beards; they were the two dissenters who remembered the glory of Puebla and the might of Puebla's victor.
Where blood had stained the pavements of the city twelve hours before, delirious throngs now danced. The thousands marched again, but it was not to destroy. The vivas did not rasp with the menace of anarchy, but were roared in an abandon of joy. Even at four o'clock the next morning, the morning of the 27th, the streets had not been deserted by the roisterers, but if any of them saw three closed automobiles without lamps speeding through the darkened streets in the direction of the San Lazaro station they paid no heed. The automobiles drew up within the station yard, and gates were closed. Out of one of them stepped an old man, whose neck was swathed in shawls and who leaned heavily on the arm of an officer in the Mexican army as he walked to a train in waiting. The American conductor saluted the old man before he took his arm to help him up the steps into the Pullman. Then four sleepy children, a nurse with a week-old infant in her arms, three heavily veiled women, and several men who carried sword-cases under their arms, were piloted to the train. An engine with three baggage-cars behind it, each filled with soldiers of the machine-gun detachments of the Eleventh Infantry, moved out of the yards first; behind it came the train of the refugees, and in the rear another short train, carrying a battalion of the Zapadores. So in the dark the deposed master of Mexico began his flight from his capital to the sea.
The fate that directs the destinies of the average Mexican peon seems always to move with a certain perverse malignancy. Does he want political liberty or only an extra drink of aguardiente, he dies getting it. His fate leads him blind-folded, ever on the edge of a chasm, where one misstep will blot him out. So it was nothing but their presiding evil genius which dictated that daily for a week before the abdication of Diaz a band of two-hundred-odd revoltosos in the state of Puebla had made it a practice to stop the train out of Mexico City running over the narrow-gauge line to Vera Cruz. In theory they stopped it to see that no soldiers of Diaz should be sent out to reinforce the feeble garrisons on the Gulf coast, but probably the perfect joy in doing a simple, lawless act was the sole inspiring cause of their vigilance. They did not rob, did not molest the few passengers who dared a railroad journey during those troublous days; the petty excitement of stopping the train, firing a few shots in the air, and voicing a few vivas for the revolution was their sole reward.
No word of the coming of Diaz's train had been sent along the railroad line. The American manager of the railroad in Mexico City feared to trust local telegraphers with train orders, so the light engine running as pilot and the three short trains behind it sped down the slopes of the high plateau toward the sea unheralded and without a schedule. Before the sun was high the band of rebels camped near the railroad track in a barren maguey desert near the town of Oriental heard an engine whistle and saw smoke lifting beyond the spur of the nearest bald knob. They mounted and ranged themselves on both sides of the track; one rode toward the advancing engine with the customary red flag. The pilot engine swung around a curve, the American engineer at the throttle saw the red flag, saw the double line of armed horsemen stretched along the track ahead, then shut off his steam, and, with his fireman, went and lay down behind the parapets of the tender. Behind was the first guard train. It slowed down to a halt just as the careless rebels cantered up to demand the opening of the baggage-car doors. But the doors opened unbidden, and from the space within each the slender barrel of a machine-gun protruded. There was no parley; simply the infliction of death by level sprays of bullets.
Before the riderless horses had plunged a hundred yards into the thicket of the maguey plants, Diaz's car had stopped behind the guard train. The ex-President commanded the women and children in the Pullman to lie flat between the seats, as the conductor afterward told the story in Vera Cruz, and then with his son, Col. Porfirio Diaz, the General stepped down and walked along the track to where his soldiers were kneeling by the side of the baggage-cars ahead, answering the shots that came from the clumps of the bayonet plants. He stood at command with his back to the door, where the machine-guns crackled. Under cover of the machine-guns' fire he ordered the infantry battalion of the Zapadores regiment to advance into the thicket and complete the work that the first hail of lead had begun. The soldiers heard the voice of their old commander, went into the thicket, and killed. The brush was over in half an hour. Diaz went on his way to the sea, while buzzards wheeled down from far heights to settle among the spikes of the desert plants.
On the sand-dunes back of the city of Vera Cruz, where unsightly gas-tanks are clustered and the railroad tracks criss-cross the filled ground, Gen. Victor Huerta, Governor of Vera Cruz, picked temporary lodgings for Diaz and his family against the sailing of the German steamer Ypiranga for Santandar. Because the old, weather-beaten house stood alone on the sands and could be surrounded on all sides by troops, it was the only safe refuge for the fleeing dictator. From the rickety gallery Diaz could look out over the blue bay to the ancient gold-and-white fortress of Santiago at the harbor mouth; past that fortress, and through the shark-infested waters of the bay, he, a revolutionary and a fugitive from a government he was attempting to overthrow, had swum to safety from the side of an American steamer thirty-seven years before. Against the walls of that fortress other revolutionaries had stood with bandaged eyes in more recent time, and his had been the word—the word of the dictator—that had loosed the volleys against them.
Diaz's last day in Mexico began with a tragedy. Two hours after midnight on May 31st one of the soldiers of the Eleventh Regiment on outpost guard near the beach caught sight of a dodging shadow that skittered in and out among the freight-cars on the railroad spur. The soldier waited until the shadow ran boldly out on the sands, and then he challenged. The shout was unheeded. The guard fired, and the shadow dropped to the beach. It was only a prisoner escaping from Santiago; a poor wight of the army, who had been in the dungeons for murder of a comrade, and who on that night had won his way through the bay, only to plump into the guard of a fugitive President. General Huerta narrated the incident of the killing of the convict to Diaz in the morning. The old warrior heard the story through, and then shook his head with a gesture of compassion. "Poor devil," he said; "but the end of his flight is more happy than mine."
At ten o'clock Diaz expressed the wish to say farewell to the remnant of his army, and orders were given for mustering the battalions of the guards that had come down from the capital with the ex-President's train, and of the sailors from the gunboats Zaragoza and San Juan de Ulloa, who had reinforced the infantrymen in the protection of the bleak house on the dunes. In the hot sunshine the soldiers of the Eleventh and the Zapadores were drawn up in double rank before the lower gallery of the house, the sailors flanked them, and directly in front of the steps the machine-guns that had dealt death in the maguey desert two days before were trundled to position, their slender, shining barrels pointing down toward the gold and red roofs of the city. The soldiers stood at rest; those of the Eleventh were all Oaxaca Indians, natives of Diaz's own state, and believers in him as in the power of the saints. They stood there in their wrinkled olive uniforms and heavy, thonged sandals, eyes strangely alight as if with a religious exaltation. A sign from Heaven—a miracle worked by the saints to show that Don Porfirio would still triumph over his enemies, as of old! That was the cry in the eyes of those Indians; discipline caused mouths to pucker with restraint of words that would be voiced. On the gallery a hundred officers of the Palace Guard, who had hurried away from Mexico City to bid their old commander godspeed even at the risk of punishment, had ranged themselves in two lines. Minutes passed and the waiting burdened the nerves of the loyal ones.
Then Don Porfirio stepped out from the dark doorway into the morning radiance, and he stood, bareheaded, before them. The sun searched every lineament of the bronzed face, but found no line of weakness and no stamp of age save its dignity. Steady eyes, strong mouth, heavy jaw of the fighter and broad forehead of the thinker: all the mien of that old Porfirio Diaz, conqueror and inflexible ruler, was there—magnetic, dynamic, compelling. He began to speak, and his voice was at first powerful and unshaken; there was a surprising note of virility in it. He said that this was to be the last time that ever he would address his soldiers—his soldiers, much beloved. For that day his exile from Mexico would begin; he was going to Europe, never to return to his home land unless some danger from foreign source should threaten.
"I give you my word of honor," the strong voice continued, "that if ever sudden danger from without threatens my country I will return, and under that flag for which I have fought much, I, with you at my back, will learn again to conquer." A sudden choking blotted Diaz's speech, and his eyes showed tears. "And now, my soldiers—last of the army of Porfirio Diaz—I say farewell. You have guarded me to the ultimate moment—you have been loyal. My soldiers, blessing—take the blessing of your old commander! More—more I cannot—say!"
He stopped, and a sibilant intaking of the breath passed down the line of brown faces where stood the Oaxaca Indians. Then, one by one, the officers of the troops sheathed their swords, advanced to the steps, and there embraced their old commander-in-chief. Their grief was frank; tears fell upon Diaz's hands as he said farewell to each. The last officer had returned to his position, and still Diaz stood, his eyes passing in slow review the faces of his soldiers. Abruptly one of them near the steps dropped his gun, and before interference could check him he had thrown himself on the steps at Diaz's feet. With his head on the old warrior's boots he called hysterically in a speech not Spanish, and caressed the knees of his master. Diaz looked down at the soldier for an instant, patted his black head, and then spoke a low word of command. The Indian stepped quickly back to the ranks, picked up his rifle, and brought it untremblingly to the salute.
A few hours later the fallen dictator, with his family, passed in a hedge of his soldiers' bayonets through the streets of Vera Cruz to the steamer. Vera Cruz was kind at the last. Its women filled the refugee's cabin with flowers, and its men crowded the pier end, and with roaring vivas sped Porfirio Diaz to his exile.