THE Spanish government experiences an unwillingness to admit foreigners into the Morro, their great stronghold, the causes of which may not be altogether mysterious. Americans have been of late especially excluded from it, and it was only by a fortunate chance that we were allowed to visit it. A friend of a friend of ours happened to have a friend in the garrison, and, after some delays and negotiations, an early morning hour was fixed upon for the expedition.
The Fort is finely placed at the entrance of the harbor, and is in itself a picturesque object. It is built of a light, yellowish stone, which is seen, as you draw near, in strong contrast with the vivid green of the tropical waters. We approached it by water, taking a row-boat from the Alameda. As we passed, we had a good view of a daily Havana spectacle, the washing of the horses. This being by far the easiest and most expeditious way of cleaning the animals, they are driven daily to the sea in great numbers, those of one party being tied together; they disport themselves in the surge and their wet backs glisten in the sun. Their drivers, nearly naked, plunge in with them, and bring them safely back to the shore.
But for the Morro. We entered without difficulty, and began at once a somewhat steep ascent, which the heat, even at that early hour, made laborious. After some climbing, we reached the top of the parapet, and looked out from the back of the Fortress. On this side, if ever on any, it will be taken,—for, standing with one's back to the harbor, one sees, nearly on the right hand, a point where trenches could be opened with advantage. The Fort is heavily gunned and garrisoned, and seems to be in fighting order. The outer wall is separated from the inner by a paved space some forty feet in width. The height of both walls makes this point a formidable one; but scaling-ladders could be thrown across, if one had possession of the outer wall. The material is the coralline rock common in this part of the island. It is a soft stone, and would prove, it is feared, something like the cotton-bag defence of New Orleans memory,—as the balls thrown from without would sink in, and not splinter the stone, which for the murderous work were to be wished. A little perseverance, with much perspiration, brought us to a high point called the Lantern, which is merely a small room, where the telescope, signal-books, and signals are kept. Here we were received by an official in blue spectacles and with a hole in his boot, but still with that air of being the chiefest thing on God's earth common to all Spaniards. The best of all was that we had brought a sack of oranges with us, and that the time was now come for their employment. With no other artillery than these did we take the very heart of the Morro citadel,—for on offering them to the official with the hole, he surrendered at once, smiled, gave us seats, and sitting down with us, indeed, was soon in the midst of his half-dozenth orange. Having refreshed ourselves, examined the flags of all nations, and made all the remarks which our limited Spanish allowed, we took leave, redescended, and reëmbarked. One of our party, an old soldier, had meanwhile been busily scanning the points and angles of the fortress, pacing off distances, etc., etc. The result of his observations would, no doubt, be valuable to men of military minds. But the writer of this, to be candid, was especially engaged with the heat, the prospect, the oranges, and the soldiers' wives and children, who peeped out from windows here and there. Such trifling creatures do come into such massive surroundings, and trifle still!
Our ladies, being still in a furious mood of sight-seeing, desired to visit the University of Havana, and, having made appointment with an accomplished Cuban, betook themselves to the College buildings with all proper escort. Their arrival in the peristyle occasioned some excitement. One of the students came up, and said in good English, "What do you want?" Others, not so polite, stared and whispered in corners. A message to one of the professors was attended with some delay, and our Cuban friend, having gone to consult with him, returned to say, with some embarrassment, that the professor would be happy to show the establishment to the ladies on Sunday, at two P. M., when every male creature but himself would be out of it; but as for their going through the rooms while the undergraduates were about, that was not to be thought of. "Why not?" asked the ladies. "For your own sake," said the messenger, and proceeded to explain that the appearance of the skirted in these halls of learning would be followed by such ill-conduct and indignity of impertinence on the part of the shirted as might be intolerable to the one and disadvantageous to the other. Now there be women, we know, whose horrid fronts could have awed these saucy little Cubans into decency and good behavior, and some that we wot of, whether possessing that power or not, would have delighted in the fancied exercise of it. What strong-minded company, under these circumstances, would have turned back? What bolting, tramping, and rushing would they not have made through the ranks of the astonished professors and students? The Anniversary set, for example, who sweep the pews of men, or, coming upon one forlorn, crush him as a boa does a sheep. Our silly little flock only laughed, colored, and retreated to the volantes, where they held a council of war, and decided to go visit some establishment where possibly better manners might prevail.
Returning on the Sunday at the hour appointed, they walked through the deserted building, and found spacious rooms, the pulpits of the professors, the benches of the students, the Queen's portrait, a very limited library, and for all consolation, some pleasant Latin sentences over the doors of the various departments, celebrating the solace and delights of learning. This was seeing the College, literally; but it was a good deal like seeing the Lion's den, the Lion himself being absent on leave,—or like visiting the Hippopotamus in Regent's Park on those days in which he remains steadfastly buried in his tank, and will show only the tip of a nostril for your entrance-fee. Still, it was a pleasure to know that learning was so handsomely housed; and as for the little rabble who could not be trusted in the presence of the sex, we forgave them heartily, knowing that soberer manners would one day come upon them as inevitably as baldness and paternity.
Let me here say that a few days in Havana make clear to one the seclusion of women in the East, and its causes. Wherever the animal vigor of men is so large in proportion to their moral power as in those countries, women must be glad to forego their liberties for the protection of the strong arm. One master is better for them than many. Whatever tyranny may grow out of such barbarous manners, the institution springs from a veritable necessity and an original good intention. The Christian religion should change this, which is justifiable only in a Mohammedan country. But where that religion is so loosely administered as in Cuba, where its teachers themselves frequent the cockpit and the gaming-table, one must not look for too much of its power in the manners and morals of men.
The Beneficenza was our next station. It is, as its name signifies, an institution with a benevolent purpose, an orphan asylum and foundling hospital in one. The State here charitably considers that infants who are abandoned by their parents are as much orphaned as they can become by the interposition of death,—nay, more. The death of parents oftenest leaves a child with some friend or relative; but the foundling is cut off from all human relationship,—he belongs only to the hand that takes him up, where he has been left to die. Despite the kind cruelty of modern theories, which will not allow of suitable provision for the sufferer, for fear of increasing the frequency of the crime by which he suffers, our hearts revolt at the miserable condition of these little creatures in our great cities, confounded with hopeless pauperism in its desolate asylums, or farmed out to starve and die. They belong to the State, and the State should nobly retrieve the world's offence against them. Their broken galaxy shows many a bright star here and there. Such a little wailing creature has been found who has commanded great actions and done good service among men. Let us then cherish the race of foundlings, of whom Moses was the first and the greatest. The princess who reared him saw not the glorious destiny which lay hid, as a birth-jewel, in his little basket of reeds. She saw only, as some of us have seen, a helpless, friendless babe. When he dedicated to her his first edition of the Pentateuch—— But nay, he did not; for neither gratitude nor dedications were in fashion among the Jews.
We found the Beneficenza spacious, well-ventilated, and administered with great order. It stands near the sea, with a fine prospect in view, and must command a cool breeze, if there be any. The children enjoy sea-bathing in summer. The Superintendent received us most kindly, and presented us to the Sisters who have charge of the children, who were good specimens of their class. We walked with them through the neat dormitories, and observed that they were much more airy than those of the Jesuit College, lately described. They all slept on the sackings of cots, beds being provided only in the infirmary. In the latter place we found but two inmates,—one suffering from ordinary Cuban fever, the other from ophthalmia.—N. B. Disease of the eyes does not seem to be common in Cuba, in spite of the tropical glare of the sun; nor do people nurse and complain of their eyes there, as with us. We found a separate small kitchen for the sick, which was neat and convenient. The larger kitchen too was handsomely endowed with apparatus, and the Superintendent told us, with a twinkle in his eye, that the children lived well. Coffee at six, a good breakfast at nine, dinner at the usual hour, bread and coffee before bed-time;—this seemed very suitable as to quantity, though differing from our ideas of children's food; but it must be remembered that the nervous stimulus of coffee is not found to be excessive in hot climates; it seems to be only what Nature demands,—no more. The kind Nun who accompanied us now showed us, with some pride, various large presses set in the wall, and piled to the top with clean and comfortable children's clothing. We came presently to where the boys were reciting their catechism. An Ecclesiastic was hearing them;—they seemed ready enough with their answers, but were allowed to gabble off the holy words in a manner almost unintelligible, and quite indecorous. They were bright, healthy-looking little fellows, ranging apparently from eight to twelve years of age. They had good play-ground set off for them, and shady galleries to walk up and down in. Coming from their quarter, the girls' department seemed quiet enough. Here was going on the eternal task of needle-work, to which the sex has been condemned ever since Adam's discovery of his want of wardrobe. Oh, ye wretched, foolish women! why will ye forever sew? "We must not only sew, but be thankful to sew; that little needle being, as the sentimental Curtis has said, the only thing between us and the worst that may befall."
These incipient women were engaged in various forms of sewing,—the most skilful in a sort of embroidery, like that which forms the border of piña handkerchiefs. A few were reading and spelling. One poor blind girl sat amongst them, with melancholy arms folded, and learned nothing,—they told us, nothing; for the instruction of the blind is not thought of in these parts. This seemed piteous to us, and made us reflect how happy are our Blinds, to say nothing of our Deafs and Dumbs. Idiocy is not uncommon here, and is the result of continual intermarriage between near relations; but it will be long before they will provide it with a separate asylum and suitable instruction.
But now came the saddest part of the whole exhibition,—a sight common enough in Europe, but by some accident hitherto unseen by us. Here is a sort of receptacle, with three or four compartments, which turns on a pivot. One side of it is open to the street, and in it the wretched parent lays the more wretched baby,—ringing a small bell at the same time, for the new admittance. The parent vanishes, the receptacle turns on its pivot,—the baby is within, and, we are willing to believe, in merciful hands.
The sight of this made, for the first time, the crime real to me. I saw at a flash the whole tragedy of desertion,—the cautious approach, the frightened countenance, the furtive act, and the great avenging pang of Nature after its consummation. What was Hester Prynne's pillory, compared to the heart of any of these mothers? I thought too of Rousseau, bringing to such a place as this children who had the right to inherit divine genius, and deserting them for the sordid reason that he did not choose to earn their bread;—the helpless mother weeping at home, and begging, through long years, to be allowed to seek and reclaim them.
Well, here were the little creatures kindly cared for; yet what a piteous place was their nursery! Some of the recent arrivals looked as if ill-usage had been exhausted upon them before they were brought hither. Blows and drugs and starvation had been tried upon them, but, with the tenacity of infancy, they clung to life. They would not die;—well then, they should live to regret it. Some of them lay on the floor, deformed and helpless; the older ones formed a little class, and were going through some elementary exercise when we passed. The babies had a large room allotted to them, and I found the wet-nurses apportioned one to each child. This appeared a very generous provision, as in such establishments elsewhere, three and even four children are given to one nurse. They had comfortable cribs, on each of which was pinned the name of its little inmate, and the date of its entrance;—generally, the name and age of the child are found written on a slip of paper attached to its clothing, when it is left in the receptacle. I saw on one, "Cecilio, three weeks old." He had been but a few days in the establishment.
Of course, I lingered longest in the babies' room, and longest of all near the crib of the little Cecilio. He was a pretty baby, and seemed to me the most ill-used of all, because the youngest. "Could they not bear with you three weeks, little fellow?" I said. "I know those at whose firesides such as you would have been welcome guests. That New York woman whom I met lately, young, rich, and childless,—I could commend you to her in place of the snarling little spaniel fiend who was her constant care and companion."
But here the Superintendent made a polite bow, saying,—"And now your Worships have seen all; for the chapel is undergoing repairs, and cannot be visited." And so we thanked, and departed.