A Trip to Cuba

by Julia Ward Howe

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Chapter IV - The Harbor of Havana.

AS we have said, there were some official mysteries connected with the arrival of our steamer in Nassau; but these did not compare with the visitations experienced in Havana. As soon as we had dropped anchor, a swarm of dark creatures came on board, with gloomy brows, mulish noses, and suspicious eyes. This application of Spanish flies proves irritating to the good-natured Captain, and uncomfortable to all of us. All possible documents are produced for their satisfaction,—bill of lading, bill of health, and so on. Still they persevere in tormenting the whole ship's crew, and regard us, when we pass, with all the hatred of race in their rayless eyes. "Is it a crime," we are disposed to ask, "to have a fair Saxon skin, blue eyes, and red blood?" Truly, one would seem to think so; and the first glance at this historical race makes clear to us the Inquisition, the Conquest of Granada, and the ancient butcheries of Alva and Pizarro.

As Havana is an unco uncertain place for accommodations, we do not go on shore, the first night, but, standing close beside the bulwarks, feel a benevolent pleasure in seeing our late companions swallowed and carried off like tidbits by the voracious boatmen below, who squabble first for them and then with them, and so gradually disappear in the darkness. On board the "Karnak" harmony reigns serene. The custom-house wretches are gone, and we are, on the whole, glad we did not murder them. Our little party enjoys tea and bread-and-butter together for the last time. After so many mutual experiences of good and evil, the catguts about our tough old hearts are loosened, and discourse the pleasant music of Friendship. An hour later, I creep up to the higher deck, to have a look-out forward, where the sailors are playing leap-frog and dancing fore-and-afters. I have a genuine love of such common sights, and am quite absorbed by the good fun before me, when a solemn voice sounds at my left, and looking round, I perceive Can Grande, who has come up to explain to me the philosophy of the sailor's dances, and to unfold his theory of amusements, as far as the narrow area of one little brain (mine, not his) will permit. His monologue, and its interruptions, ran very much as follows:—

I.—This is a pleasant sight, isn't it?

Can Grande.—It has a certain interest, as exhibiting the inborn ideal tendency of the human race;—no tribe of people so wretched, so poor, or so infamous as to dispense with amusement, in some form or other.

Voice from below.—Play up, Cook! That's but a slow jig ye're fluting away at.

Can Grande.—I went once to the Five Points of New York, with a police-officer and two philanthropists;—our object was to investigate that lowest phase of social existence.——

Bang, whang, go the wrestlers below, with loud shouts and laughter. I give them one eye and ear,—Can Grande has me by the other.

Can Grande.—I went into one of their miserable dance-saloons. I saw there the vilest of men and the vilest of women, meeting with the worst intentions; but even for this they had the fiddle, music and dancing. Without this little crowning of something higher, their degradation would have been intolerable to themselves and to each other.——

Here the man who gave the back in leap-frog suddenly went down in the middle of the leap, bringing with him the other who, rolling on the deck, caught the traitor by the hair, and pommeled him to his heart's content. I ventured to laugh, and exclaim, "Did you see that?"

Can Grande.—Yes; that is very common.—At that dance of death, every wretched woman had such poor adornment as her circumstances allowed,—a collar, a tawdry ribbon, a glaring false jewel, her very rags disposed with the greater decency of the finer sex,—a little effort at beauty, a sense of it. The good God puts it there;—He does not allow the poorest, the lowest of his human children the thoughtless indifference of brutes.——

And there was the beautiful tropical sky above, starry, soft, and velvet-deep,—the placid waters all around, and at my side the Man who is to speak no more in public, but whose words in private have still the old thrill, the old power to shake the heart and bring the good thoughts uppermost. I put my hand in his, and we descended the companion-way together, and left the foolish sailors to their play.

But now, on the after-deck, the Captain, entreated and in nowise unwilling, takes down his violin, and with pleasant touch gives us the dear old airs, "Home, Sweet Home," "Annie Laurie," and so on, and we accompany him with voices toned down by the quiet of the scene around. He plays too, with a musing look, the merry tune to which his little daughter dances, in the English dancing-school, hundreds of leagues away. Good-night, at last, and make the most of it. Coolness and quiet on the water to-night, and heat and mosquitoes, howling of dogs and chattering of negroes to-morrow night, in Havana.

The next morning allowed us to accomplish our transit to the desired land of Havana. We pass the Custom-house, where an official in a cage, with eyes of most oily sweetness, and tongue, no doubt, to match, pockets our gold, and imparts in return a governmental permission to inhabit the island of Cuba for the space of one calendar month. We go trailing through the market, where we buy peeled oranges, and through the streets, where we eat them, seen and recognized afar as Yankees by our hats, bonnets, and other features. We stop at the Café Dominica, and refresh with coffee and buttered rolls, for we have still a drive of three miles to accomplish before breakfast. All the hotels in Havana are full, and more than full. Woolcut, of the Cerro, three miles from the gates, is the only landlord who will take us in; so he seizes us fairly by the neck, bundles us into an omnibus, swears that his hotel is but two miles distant, smiles archly when we find the two miles long, brings us where he wants to have us, the Spaniards in the omnibus puffing and staring at the ladies all the way. Finally, we arrive at his hotel, glad to be somewhere, but hot, tired, hungry, and not in raptures with our first experience of tropical life.

It must be confessed that our long-tried energies fall somewhat flat on the quiet of Woolcut's. We look round, and behold one long room with marble floor, with two large doors, not windows, opening in front upon the piazza and the street, and other openings into a large court behind, surrounded by small, dark bedrooms. The large room is furnished with two dilapidated cane sofas, a few chairs, a small table, and three or four indifferent prints, which we have ample time to study. For company, we see a stray New York or Philadelphia family, a superannuated Mexican who smiles and bows to everybody, and some dozen of those undistinguishable individuals whom we class together as Yankees, and who, taking the map from Maine to Georgia, might as well come from one place as another, the Southerner being as like the Northerner as a dried pea is to a green pea. The ladies begin to hang their heads, and question a little:—"What are we to do here? and where is the perfectly delightful Havana you told us of?" Answer:—"There is nothing whatever to do here, at this hour of the day, but to undress and go to sleep;—the heat will not let you stir, the glare will not let you write or read. Go to bed; dinner is at four; and after that, we will make an effort to find the Havana of the poetical and Gan Eden people, praying Heaven it may not have its only existence in their brains."

Still, the pretty ones do not brighten. They walk up and down, eyeing askance the quiet boarders who look so contented over their children and worsted-work, and wondering in what part of the world they have taken the precaution to leave their souls. Unpacking is then begun, with rather a flinging of the things about, interspersed with little peppery hints as to discomfort and dulness, and dejected stage-sighs, intended for hearing. But this cannot go on,—the thermometer is at 78° in the shade,—an intense and contagious stillness reigns through the house,—some good genius waves a bunch of poppies near those little fretful faces, for which a frown is rather heavy artillery. The balmy breath of sleep blows off the lightly-traced furrows, and after a dreamy hour or two all is bright, smooth, and freshly dressed, as a husband could wish it. The dinner proves not intolerable, and after it we sit on the piazza. A refreshing breeze springs up, and presently the tide of the afternoon drive sets in from the city. The volantes dash by, with silver-studded harnesses, and postilions black and booted; within sit the pretty Señoritas, in twos and threes. They are attired mostly in muslins, with bare necks and arms; bonnets they know not,—their heads are dressed with flowers, or with jewelled pins. Their faces are whitened, we know, with powder, but in the distance the effect is pleasing. Their dark eyes are vigilant; they know a lover when they see him. But there is no twilight in these parts, and the curtain of the dark falls upon the scene as suddenly as the screen of the theatre upon the dénouement of the tragedy. Then comes a cup of truly infernal tea, the mastication of a stale roll, with butter, also stale,—then, more sitting on the piazza,—then, retirement, and a wild hunt after mosquitoes,—and so ends the first day at Woolcut's, on the Cerro.

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