A Trip to Cuba

by Julia Ward Howe

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Chapter VI - Havana - Your Banker - Our Consul - The Friendly Cup of Tea.

ONE is apt to arrive in Havana with a heart elated by the prospect of such kindnesses and hospitalities as are poetically supposed to be the perquisite of travellers. You count over your letters as so many treasures; you regard the unknown houses you pass as places of deposit for the new acquaintances and delightful friendships which await you. In England, say you, each of these letters would represent a pleasant family-mansion thrown open to your view,—a social breakfast,—a dinner of London wits,—a box at the opera,—or the visit of a Lord, whose perfect carriage and livery astonish the quiet street in which you lodge, and whose good taste and good manners should, one thinks, prove contagious, at once soothing and shaming the fretful Yankee conceit. But your Cuban letters, like fairy money, soon turn to withered leaves in your possession, and, having delivered two or three of them, you employ the others more advantageously, as shaving-paper, or for the lighting of cigars, or any other useful purpose.

Your Banker, of course, stands first upon the list,—and to him accordingly, with a beaming countenance, you present yourself. For him you have a special letter of recommendation, and however others may fail, you consider him as sure as the trump of the deal at whist. But why, alas, should people, who have gone through the necessary disappointments of life, prepare for themselves others, which may be avoided? Listen and learn. At the first visit, your Banker is tolerably glad to see you,—he discounts your modest letter of credit, and pockets his two and a half per cent, with the best grace imaginable. If he wishes to be very civil, he offers you a seat, offers you a cigar, and mumbles in an indistinct tone that he will be happy to serve you in any way. You call again and again, keeping yourself before his favorable remembrance,—always the same seat, the same cigar, the same desire to serve you, carefully repressed, and prevented from breaking out into any overt demonstration of good-will. At last, emboldened by the brilliant accounts of former tourists and the successes of your friends, you suggest that you would like to see a plantation,—you only ask for one,—would he give you a letter, etc., etc.? He assumes an abstracted air, wonders if he knows anybody who has a plantation,—the fact being that he scarcely knows anybody who has not one. Finally, he will try,—call again, and he will let you know. You call again,—"Next week," he says. You call after that interval,—"Next week," again, is all you get. Now, if you are a thorough-bred man, you can afford to quarrel with your Banker; so you say, "Next week,—why not next year?"—make a very decided snatch at your hat, and wish him a very long "good-morning." But if you are a Snob and afraid, you take his neglect quietly enough, and will boast, when you go home, of his polite attentions to yourself and family, when on the Island of Cuba.

Our Consul is the next post in the weary journey of your hopes, and to him, with such assurance as you have left, you now betake yourself. Touching him personally I have nothing to say. I will only remark, in general, that the traveller who can find, in any part of the world, an American Consul not disabled from all service by ill-health, want of means, ignorance of foreign languages, or unpleasant relations with the representatives of foreign powers,—that traveller, we say, should go in search of the sea-serpent, and the passage of the North Pole, for he has proved himself able to find what, to every one but him, is undiscoverable.

But who, setting these aside, is to show you any attention? Who will lift you from the wayside, and set you upon his own horse, or in his own volante, pouring oil and wine upon your wounded feelings? Ah! the breed of the good Samaritan is never allowed to become extinct in this world, where so much is left for it to do.

A kind and hospitable American family, long resident in Havana, takes us up at last. They call upon us, and we lift up our heads; they take us out in their carriage, and we step in with a little familiar flounce, intended to show that we are used to such things; finally, they invite us to a friendly cup of tea,—all the hotel knows it,—we have tarried at home in the shade long enough. Now, people have begun to find us out,—we are going out to tea!

How pleasant the tea-table was, how good the tea, how more than good the bread-and-butter and plum-cake, how quaint the house of Spanish construction, all open to the air, adorned with flowers like a temple, fresh and fragrant, and with no weary upholstery to sit heavy on the sight, how genial and prolonged the talk, how reluctant the separation,—imagine it, ye who sing the songs of home in a strange land. And ye who cannot imagine, forgo the pleasure, for I shall tell you no more about it. I will not, I, give names, to make good-natured people regret the hospitality they have afforded. If they have entertained unawares angels and correspondents of the press, (I use the two terms as synonymous,) they shall not be made aware of it by the sacrifice of their domestic privacy. All celebrated people do this, and that we do it not answers for our obscurity.

The cup of tea proves the precursor of many kind services and pleasant hours. Our new friends assist us to a deal of sight-seeing, and introduce us to cathedral, college, and garden. We walk out with them at sunrise and at sunset, and sit under the stately trees, and think it almost strange to be at home with people of our own race and our own way of thinking, so far from the home-surroundings. For the gardens, they may chiefly be described as triumphs of Nature over Art,—our New England horticulture being, on the contrary, the triumph of Art over Nature, after a hard-fought battle. Here, the avenues of palm and cocoa are magnificent, and the flowers new to us, and very brilliant. But pruning and weeding out are hard tasks for Creole natures, with only negroes to help them. There is for the most part a great overgrowth and overrunning of the least desirable elements, a general air of slovenliness and unthrift. In all artificial arrangements decay seems imminent, and the want of idea in the laying out of grounds is a striking feature. In Italian villas, the feeling of the Beautiful, which has produced a race of artists, is everywhere manifest,—everywhere are beautiful forms and picturesque effects. Even the ruins of Rome seem to be held together by this fine bond. No stone dares to drop, no arch to moulder, but with an exquisite and touching grace. And the weeds, oh! the weeds that hang their little pennon on the Coliseum, how graciously do they float, as if they said,—"Breathe softly, lest this crumbling vision of the Past go down before the rude touch of the modern world!" And so one treads lightly, and speaks in hushed accents; lest, in the brilliant Southern noon, one should wake the sleeping heart of Rome to the agony of her slow extinction.

But what is all this? We are dreaming of Rome,—and this is Cuba, where the spirit of Art has never been, and where it could not pass without sweeping out from houses, churches, gardens, and brains, such trash as has rarely been seen and endured elsewhere. They show us, for example, some mutilated statues in the ruins of what is called the Bishop's Garden. Why, the elements did a righteous work, when they effaced the outlines of these coarse and trivial shapes, unworthy even the poor marble on which they were imposed. Turning from these, however, we find lovely things enough to rebuke this savage mood of criticism. The palm-trees are unapproachable in beauty,—they stand in rows like Ionic columns, straight, strong, and regular, with their plumed capitals. They talk solemnly of the Pyramids and the Desert, whose legends have been whispered to them by the winds that cross the ocean, freighted with the thoughts of God. Then, these huge white lilies, deep as goblets, from which one drinks fragrance, and never exhausts,—these thousand unknown jewels of the tropics. Here is a large tank, whose waters are covered with the leaves and flowers of beautiful aquatic plants, whose Latin names are of no possible consequence to anybody. Here, in the very heart of the garden, is a rustic lodge, curtained with trailing vines. Birds in cages are hung about it, and a sweet voice, singing within, tells us that the lodge is the cage of a yet more costly bird. We stop to listen, and the branches of the trees seem to droop more closely about us, the twilight lays its cool, soft touch upon our heated foreheads, and we whisper,—"Peace to his soul!" as we leave the precincts of the Bishop's Garden.

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