A Trip to Cuba

by Julia Ward Howe

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Chapter I - The Departure.

WHY one leaves home at all is a question that travellers are sure, sooner or later, to ask themselves,—I mean, pleasure-travellers. Home, where one has the "Transcript" every night, and the "Autocrat" every month, opera, theatre, circus, and good society, in constant rotation,—home, where everybody knows us, and the little good there is to know about us,—finally, home, as seen regretfully for the last time, with the gushing of long frozen friendships, the priceless kisses of children, and the last sad look at dear baby's pale face through the window-pane,—well, all this is left behind, and we review it as a dream, while the railroad-train hurries us along to the spot where we are to leave, not only this, but Winter, rude tyrant, with all our precious hostages in his grasp. Soon the swift motion lulls our brains into the accustomed muddle. We seem to be dragged along like a miserable thread pulled through the eye of an everlasting needle,—through and through, and never through,—while here and there, like painful knots, the dépôts stop us, the poor thread is arrested for a minute, and then the pulling begins again. Or, in another dream, we are like fugitives threading the gauntlet of the grim forests, while the ice-bound trees essay a charge of bayonets on either side; but, under the guidance of our fiery Mercury, we pass them as safely as ancient Priam passed the outposts of the Greeks,—and New York, hospitable as Achilles, receives us in its mighty tent. Here we await the "Karnak," the British Mail Company's new screw-steamer, bound for Havana, viâ Nassau. At length comes the welcome order to "be on board." We betake ourselves thither,—the anchor is weighed, the gun fired, and we take leave of our native land with a patriotic pang, which soon gives place to severer spasms.

I do not know why all celebrated people who write books of travels begin by describing their days of sea-sickness. Dickens, George Combe, Fanny Kemble, Mrs. Stowe, Miss Bremer, and many others, have opened in like manner their valuable remarks on foreign countries. While intending to avail myself of their privilege and example, I would nevertheless suggest, for those who may come after me, that the subject of sea-sickness should be embalmed in science, and enshrined in the crypt of some modern encyclopædia, so that future writers should refer to it only as the Pang Unspeakable, for which vide Ripley and Dana, vol., page. But, as I have already said, I shall speak of sea-sickness in a hurried and picturesque manner, as follows:—

Who are these that sit by the long dinner-table in the forward cabin, with a most unusual lack of interest in the bill of fare? Their eyes are closed, mostly, their cheeks are pale, their lips are quite bloodless, and to every offer of good cheer, their "No, thank you," is as faintly uttered as are marriage-vows by maiden lips. Can they be the same that, an hour ago, were so composed, so jovial, so full of dangerous defiance to the old man of the sea? The officer who carves the roast-beef offers at the same time a slice of fat;—this is too much; a panic runs through the ranks, and the rout is instantaneous and complete. The ghost of what each man was disappears through the trap-door of his state-room, and the hell which the theatre faintly pictures behind the scenes begins in good earnest.

For to what but to Dante's "Inferno" can we liken this steamboat-cabin, with its double row of pits, and its dismal captives? What are these sighs, groans, and despairing noises, but the alti guai rehearsed by the poet? Its fiends are the stewards who rouse us from our perpetual torpor with offers of food and praises of shadowy banquets,—"Nice mutton-chop, Sir? roast-turkey? plate of soup?" Cries of "No, no!" resound, and the wretched turn again, and groan. The Philanthropist has lost the movement of the age,—keeled up in an upper berth, convulsively embracing a blanket, what conservative more immovable than he? The Great Man of the party refrains from his large theories, which, like the circles made by the stone thrown into the water, begin somewhere and end nowhere. As we have said, he expounds himself no more, the significant forefinger is down, the eye no longer imprisons yours. But if you ask him how he does, he shakes himself as if, like Farinata,—

"avesse l'inferno in gran dispetto,"—

"he had a very contemptible opinion of hell."

Let me not forget to add, that it rains every day, that it blows every night, and that it rolls through the twenty-four hours till the whole world seems as if turned bottom upwards, clinging with its nails to chaos, and fearing to launch away. The Captain comes and says,—"It is true you have a nasty, short, chopping sea hereabouts; but you see, she is spinning away down South jolly!" And this is the Gulf-Stream!

But all things have an end, and most things have two. After the third day, a new development manifests itself. Various shapeless masses are carried up-stairs and suffered to fall like snow-flakes on the deck, and to lie there in shivering heaps. From these larvæ gradually emerge features and voices,—the luncheon-bell at last stirs them with the thrill of returning life. They look up, they lean up, they exchange pensive smiles of recognition,—the Steward comes, no fiend this time, but a ministering angel; and lo! the strong man eats broth, and the weak woman clamors for pickled oysters. And so ends my description of our sea-sickness.

For, as for betraying the confidences of those sad days, as for telling how wofully untrue Professors of Temperance were to their principles, how the Apostle of Total Abstinence developed a brandy-flask, not altogether new, what unsuccessful tipplings were attempted in the desperation of nausea, and for what lady that stunning brandy-smasher was mixed,—as for such tales out of school, I would have you know that I am not the man to tell them.

Yet a portrait or so lingers in my mental repository;—let me throw them in, to close off the lot.

No. 1. A sober Bostonian in the next state-room, whose assiduity with his sea-sick wife reminds one of Cock-Robin, in the days when he sent Jenny Wren sops and wine. This person was last seen in a dressing-gown, square-cut night-cap, and odd slippers, dancing up and down the state-room floor with a cup of gruel, making wild passes with a spoon at an individual in a berth, who never got any of the contents. Item, the gruel, in a moment of excitement, finally ran in a stream upon the floor, and was wiped up by the Steward. Result not known, but disappointment is presumable.

No. 2. A stout lady, imprisoned by a board on a sofa nine inches wide, called by a facetious friend "The Coffin." She complains that her sides are tolerably battered in;—we hold our tongues, and think that the board, too, has had a hard time of it. Yet she is a jolly soul, laughing at her misfortunes, and chirruping to her baby. Her spirits keep up, even when her dinner won't keep down. Her favorite expressions are "Good George!" and "Oh, jolly!" She does not intend, she says, to lay in any dry goods in Cuba, but means to eat up all the good victuals she comes across. Though seen at present under unfavorable circumstances, she inspires confidence as to her final accomplishment of this result.

No. 3. A woman, said to be of a literary turn of mind, in the miserablest condition imaginable. Her clothes, flung at her by the Stewardess seem to have hit in some places, and missed in others. Her listless hands occasionally make an attempt to keep her draperies together, and to pull her hat on her head; but though the intention is evident, she accomplishes little by her motion. She is perpetually being lugged about by a stout steward, who knocks her head against both sides of the vessel, folds her up in the gangway, spreads her out on the deck, and takes her up-stairs, down-stairs, and in my lady's chamber, where, report says, he feeds her with a spoon, and comforts her with such philosophy as he is master of. N.B. This woman, upon the first change of weather, rose like a cork, dressed like a Christian, and toddled about the deck in the easiest manner, sipping her grog, and cutting sly jokes upon her late companions in misery,—is supposed by some to have been an impostor, and, when ill-treated, announced intentions of writing a book.

No. 4, my last, is only a sketch;—circumstances allowed no more. Can Grande, the great dog, has been got up out of the pit, where he worried the Stewardess and snapped at the friend who tried to pat him on the head. Everybody asks where he is. "Don't you see that heap of shawls yonder, lying in the sun, and heated up to about 212° Fahrenheit? That slouched hat on top marks the spot where his head should lie,—by treading cautiously in the opposite direction you may discover his feet. All between is perfectly passive and harmless. His chief food is pickles,—his only desire is rest. After all these years of controversy, after all these battles, bravely fought and nobly won, you might write with truth upon this moveless mound of woollens the pathetic words from Père la Chaise:—Implora Pace."

But no more at present, for land is in sight, and in my next you shall hear how we found it, and what we saw at Nassau.

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