Breakfast in Coralio was at eleven. Therefore the people did not go to market early. The little wooden market-house stood on a patch of short-trimmed grass, under the vivid green foliage of a bread-fruit tree.
Thither one morning the venders leisurely convened, bringing their wares with them. A porch or platform six feet wide encircled the building, shaded from the mid-morning sun by the projecting, grass- thatched roof. Upon this platform the venders were wont to display their goods—newly killed beef, fish, crabs, fruit of the country, cassava, eggs, ~dulces~ and high, tottering stacks of native tortillas as large around as the sombrero of a Spanish grandee.
But on this morning they whose stations lay on the seaward side of the market-house, instead of spreading their merchandise formed themselves into a softly jabbering and gesticulating group. For there upon their space of the platform was sprawled, asleep, the unbeautiful figure of "Beelzebub" Blythe. He lay upon a ragged strip of cocoa matting, more than ever a fallen angel in appearance. His suit of coarse flax, soiled, bursting at the seams, crumpled into a thousand diversified wrinkles and creases, inclosed him absurdly, like the garb of some effigy that had been stuffed in sport and thrown there after indignity had been wrought upon it. But firmly upon the high bridge of his nose reposed his gold-rimmed glasses, the surviving badge of his ancient glory.
The sun′s rays, reflecting quiveringly from the rippling sea upon his face, and the voices of the market-men woke "Beelzebub" Blythe. He sat up, blinking, and leaned his back against the wall of the market. Drawing a blighted silk handkerchief from his pocket, he assiduously rubbed and burnished his glasses. And while doing this he became aware that his bedroom had been invaded, and that polite brown and yellow men were beseeching him to vacate in favor of their market stuff.
If the senor would have the goodness—a thousand pardons for bringing to him molestation—but soon would come the ~compradores~ for the day′s provisions—surely they had ten thousand regrets at disturbing him!
In this manner they expanded to him the intimation that he must clear out and cease to clog the wheels of trade.
Blythe stepped from the platform with the air of a prince leaving his canopied couch. He never quite lost that air, even at the lowest point of his fall. It is clear that the college of good breeding does not necessarily maintain a chair of morals within its walls.
Blythe shook out his wry clothing, and moved slowly up the Calle Grande through the hot sand. He moved without a destination in his mind. The little town was languidly stirring to its daily life. Golden-skinned babies tumbled over one another in the grass. The sea breeze brought him appetite, but nothing to satisfy it. Throughout Coralio were its morning odors—those from the heavily fragrant tropical flowers and from the bread baking in the outdoor ovens of clay and the pervading smoke of their fires. Where the smoke cleared, the crystal air, with some of the efficacy of faith, seemed to remove the mountains almost to the sea, bringing them so near that one might count the scarred glades on their wooded sides. The light-footed Caribs were swiftly gliding to their tasks at the waterside. Already along the bosky trails from the banana groves files of horses were slowly moving, concealed, except for their nodding heads and plodding legs, by the bunches of green-golden fruit heaped upon their backs. On doorsills sat women combing their long, black hair and calling, one to another, across the narrow thoroughfares. Peace reigned in Coralio —arid and bald peace; but still peace.
On that bright morning when Nature seemed to be offering the lotus on the Dawn′s golden platter "Beelzebub" Blythe had reached rock bottom. Further descent seemed impossible. That last night′s slumber in a public place had done for him. As long as he had had a roof to cover him there had remained, unbridged, the space that separates a gentleman from the beasts of the jungle and the fowls of the air. But now he was little more than a whimpering oyster led to be devoured on the sands of a Southern sea by the artful walrus, Circumstance, and the implacable carpenter, Fate.
To Blythe money was now but a memory. He had drained his friends of all that their good-fellowship had to offer; then he had squeezed them to the last drop of their generosity; and at last, Aaron-like, he had smitten the rock of their hardening bosoms for the scattering, ignoble drops of Charity itself.
He had exhausted his credit to the last real. With the minute keenness of the shameless sponger he was aware of every source in Coralio from which a glass of rum, a meal or a piece of silver could be wheedled. Marshalling each such source in his mind, he considered it with all the thoroughness and penetration that hunger and thirst lent him for the task. All his optimism failed to thresh a grain of hope from the chaff of his postulations. He had played out the game. That one night in the open had shaken his nerves. Until then there had been left to him at least a few grounds upon which he could base his unblushing demands upon his neighbors′ stores. Now he must beg instead of borrowing. The most brazen sophistry could not dignify by the name of "loan" the coin contemptuously flung to a beachcomber who slept on the bare boards of the public market.
But on this morning no beggar would have more thankfully received a charitable coin, for the demon thirst had him by the throat—the drunkard′s matutinal thirst that requires to be slaked at each morning station on the road to Tophet.
Blythe walked slowly up the street, keeping a watchful eye for any miracle that might drop manna upon him in his wilderness. As he passed the popular eating house of Madama Vasquez, Madama′s boarders were just sitting down to freshly baked bread, ~aguacates~, pines and delicious coffee that sent forth odorous guarantee of its quality upon the breeze. Madama was serving; she turned her shy, stolid, melancholy gaze for a moment out the window; she saw Blythe, and her expression turned more shy and embarrassed. "Beelzebub" owed her twenty pesos. He bowed as he had once bowed to less embarrassed dames to whom he owed nothing, and passed on.
Merchants and their clerks were throwing open the solid wooden doors of their shops. Polite but cool were the glances they cast upon Blythe as he lounged tentatively by with the remains of his old jaunty air; for they were his creditors almost without exception.
At the little fountain in the ~plaza~ he made an apology for a toilet with his wetted handkerchief. Across the open square filed the dolorous line of friends to the prisoners in the calaboza, bearing the morning meal of the immured. The food in their hands roused small longing in Blythe.
It was drink that his soul craved, or money to buy it. In the streets he met many with whom he had been friends and equals, and whose patience and liberality he had gradually exhausted. Willard Geddie and Paula cantered past him with the coolest of nods, returning from their daily horseback ride along the old Indian road. Keogh passed him at another corner, whistling cheerfully and bearing a prize of newly laid eggs for the breakfast of himself and Clancy. The jovial scout of Fortune was one of Blythe′s victims who had plunged his hand oftenest into his pocket to aid him. But now it seemed that Keogh, too, had fortified himself against further invasions. His curt greeting and the ominous light in his full, gray eye quickened the steps of "Beelzebub," whom desperation had almost incited to attempt an additional "loan."
Three drinking shops the forlorn one next visited in succession. In all of these his money, his credit and his welcome had long since been spent; but Blythe felt that he would have fawned in the dust at the feet of an enemy that morning for one draught of ~aguardiente~. In two of the ~pulperias~ his courageous petition for drink was met with a refusal so polite that it stung worse than abuse. The third establishment had acquired something of American methods; and here he was seized bodily and cast out upon his hands and knees.
This physical indignity caused a singular change in the man. As he picked himself up and walked away, an expression of absolute relief came upon his features. The specious and conciliatory smile that had been graven there was succeeded by a look of calm and sinister resolve. "Beelzebub" had been floundering in the sea of improbability, holding by a slender life-line to the respectable world that had cast him overboard. He must have felt that with this ultimate shock the line had snapped, and have experienced the welcome ease of the drowning swimmer who has ceased to struggle.
Blythe walked to the next corner and stood there while he brushed the sand from his garments and repolished his glasses.
"I′ve got to do it—oh, I′ve got to do it," he told himself, aloud. "If I had a quart of rum I believe I could stave it off yet—for a little while. But there′s no more rum for—′Beelzebub,′ as they call me. By the flames of Tartarus! if I′m to sit at the right hand of Satan somebody has got to pay the court expenses. You′ll have to pony up, Mr. Frank Goodwin. You′re a good fellow; but a gentleman must draw the line at being kicked into the gutter. Blackmail isn′t a pretty word, but it′s the next station on the road I′m travelling."
With purpose in his steps Blythe now moved rapidly through the town by way of its landward environs. He passed through the squalid quarters of the improvident negroes and on beyond the picturesque shacks of the poorer mestizos. From many points along his course he could see, through the umbrageous glades, the house of Frank Goodwin on its wooded hill. And as he crossed the little bridge over the lagoon he saw the old Indian, Galvez, scrubbing at the wooden slab that bore the name of Miraflores. Beyond the lagoon the lands of Goodwin began to slope gently upward. A grassy road, shaded by a munificent and diverse array of tropical flora wound from the edge of an outlying banana grove to the dwelling. Blythe took this road with long and purposeful strides.
Goodwin was seated on his coolest gallery, dictating letters to his secretary, a sallow and capable native youth. The household adhered to the American plan of breakfast; and that meal had been a thing of the past for the better part of an hour.
The castaway walked to the steps, and flourished a hand.
"Good morning, Blythe, said Goodwin, looking up. "Come in and have a chair. Anything I can do for you?"
"I want to speak to you in private."
Goodwin nodded at his secretary, who strolled out under a mango tree and lit a cigarette. Blythe took the chair that he had left vacant.
"I want some money," he began, doggedly.
"I′m sorry," said Goodwin, with equal directness, "but you can′t have any. You′re drinking yourself to death, Blythe. Your friends have done all they could to help you to brace up. You won′t help yourself. There′s no use furnishing you with money to ruin yourself with any longer."
"Dear man," said Blythe, tilting back his chair, "it isn′t a question of social economy now. It′s past that. I like you, Goodwin; and I′ve come to stick a knife between your ribs. I was kicked out of Espada′s saloon this morning; and Society owes me reparation for my wounded feelings."
"I didn′t kick you out."
"No—but in a general way you represent Society; and in a particular way you represent my last chance. I′ve had to come down to it, old man—I tried to do it a month ago when Losada′s man was here turning things over; but I couldn′t do it then. Now it′s different. I want a thousand dollars, Goodwin; and you′ll have to give it to me."
"Only last week," said Goodwin, with a smile, "a silver dollar was all you were asking for."
"An evidence," said Blythe, flippantly, "that I was still virtuous— though under heavy pressure. The wages of sin should be something higher than a peso worth forty-eight cents. Let′s talk business. I am the villain in the third act; and I must have my merited, if only temporary, triumph. I saw you collar the late president′s valiseful of boodle. Oh, I know it′s blackmail; but I′m liberal about the price. I know I′m a cheap villain—one of the regular sawmill-drama kind—but you′re one of my particular friends, and I don′t want to stick you hard."
"Suppose you go into the details," suggested Goodwin, calmly arranging his letters on the table.
"All right," said "Beelzebub." "I like the way you take it. I despise histrionics; so you will please prepare yourself for the facts without any red fire, calcium or grace notes on the saxophone.
"On the night that His Fly-by-night Excellency arrived in town I was very drunk. You will excuse the pride with which I state that fact; but it was quite a feat for me to attain that desirable state. Somebody had left a cot out under the orange trees in the yard of Madama Ortiz′s hotel. I stepped over the wall, laid down upon it, and fell asleep. I was awakened by an orange that dropped from the tree upon my nose; and I laid there for a while cursing Sir Isaac Newton, or whoever it was that invented gravitation, for not confining his theory to apples.
"And then along came Mr. Miraflores and his true-love with the treasury in a valise, and went into the hotel. Next you hove in sight, and held a pow-wow with the tonsorial artist who insisted upon talking shop after hours. I tried to slumber again; but once more my rest was disturbed—this time by the noise of the popgun that went off upstairs. Then that valise came crashing down into an orange tree just above my head; and I arose from my couch, not knowing when it might begin to rain Saratoga trunks. When the army and the constabulary began to arrive, with their medals and decorations hastily pinned to their pajamas, and their snickersnees drawn, I crawled into the welcome shadow of a banana plant. I remained there for an hour, by which time the excitement and the people had cleared away. And then, my dear Goodwin—excuse me—I saw you sneak back and pluck that ripe and juicy valise from the orange tree. I followed you, and saw you take it to your own house. A hundred-thousand-dollar crop from one orange tree in a season about breaks the record of the fruit-growing industry.
"Being a gentleman at that time, of course I never mentioned the incident to any one. But this morning I was kicked out of a saloon, my code of honor is all out at the elbows, and I′d sell my mother′s prayer-book for three fingers of ~aguardiente~. I′m not putting on the screws hard. It ought to be worth a thousand to you for me to have slept on that cot through the whole business without waking up and seeing anything."
Goodwin opened two more letters, and made memoranda in pencil on them. Then he called "Manuel!" to his secretary, who came, spryly.
"The ~Ariel~—when does she sail?" asked Goodwin. "Senor," answered the youth, "at three this afternoon. She drops down-coast to Punta Soledad to complete her cargo of fruit. From there she sails for New Orleans without delay."
"~Bueno!~" said Goodwin. "These letters may wait yet awhile."
The secretary returned to his cigarette under the mango tree.
In round numbers," said Goodwin, facing Blythe squarely, "how much money do you owe in this town, not including the sums you have ′borrowed′ from me?"
"Five hundred—at a rough guess," answered Blythe, lightly.
"Go somewhere in the town and draw up a schedule of your debts," said Goodwin. "Come back here in two hours, and I will send Manuel with the money to pay them. I will also have a decent outfit of clothing ready for you. You will sail on the ~Ariel~ at three. Manuel will accompany you as far as the deck of the steamer. There he will hand you one thousand dollars in cash. I suppose that we needn′t discuss what you will be expected to do in return?"
"Oh, I understand," piped Blythe, cheerily. "I was asleep all the time on the cot under Madama Ortiz′s orange trees; and I shake off the dust of Coralio forever. I′ll play fair. No more of the lotus for me. Your proposition is 0. K. Youre a good fellow, Goodwin; and I let you off light. I′ll agree to everything. But in the meantime —I′ve a devil of a thirst on, old man—"
"Not a ~centavo~," said Goodwin, firmly, "until you are on board the ~Ariel~. You would be drunk in thirty minutes if you had money now."
But he noticed the blood-streaked eyeballs, the relaxed form and the shaking hands of "Beelzebub"; and he stepped into the dining room through the low window, and brought out a glass and a decanter of brandy.
"Take a bracer, anyway, before you go," he proposed, even as a man to the friend whom he entertains.
"Beelzebub" Blythe′s eyes glistened at the sight of the solace for which his soul burned. Today for the first time his poisoned nerves had been denied their steadying dose; and their retort was a mounting torment. He grasped the decanter and rattled its crystal mouth against the glass in his trembling hand. He flushed the glass, and then stood erect, holding it aloft for an instant. For one fleeting moment he held his head above the drowning waves of his abyss. He nodded easily at Goodwin, raised his brimming glass and murmured a "health" that men had used in his ancient Paradise Lost. And then so suddenly that he spilled the brandy over his hand, he set down his glass, untasted.
"In two hours," his dry lips muttered to Goodwin, as he marched down the steps and turned his face toward the town.
In the edge of the cool banana grove "Beelzebub" halted, and snapped the tongue of his belt buckle into another hole.
"I couldn′t do it," he explained, feverishly, to the waving banana fronds. "I wanted to, but I couldn′t. A gentleman can′t drink with the man that he blackmails."