A Trip to Cuba

by Julia Ward Howe

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Chapter XII - Matanzas.

A HOT and dusty journey of some six hours brought us to Matanzas at high noon. Our companions were Cubans, Spaniards, Americans, and game-chickens, who travel extensively in these parts, sometimes in little baskets, with openings for the head and tail, sometimes in the hands of their owners, secured only by a string fastened to one foot and passed over the body. They seem to be objects of tender solicitude to those who carry them; they are nursed and fondled like children, and at intervals are visited all round by a negro, who fills his mouth with water, and squirts it into their eyes and under their feathers. They are curiously plucked on the back and about the tail, where only the long tail-feathers are allowed to grow. Their tameness in the hands of their masters is quite remarkable; they suffer themselves to be turned and held in any direction. But when set down, at any stage of the journey, they stamp their little feet, stretch their necks, crow, and look about them for the other cock with most belligerent eyes. As we have said that the negro of the North is an ideal negro, so we must say that the game-cock of Cuba is an ideal chicken, a fowl that is too good to be killed,—clever enough to fight for people who are too indolent and perhaps too cowardly to fight for themselves,—in short, the Gladiator of the Tropics.

Well, as we have said, we and they arrived at our journey's end in the extreme heat of the day; and having shown our paper and demanded our trunks, we beat an instantaneous retreat before the victorious Monarch of the skies, and lo! the Ensor House, dirty, bare, and comfortless, was to us as a fortress and a rock of defence.

Here I would gladly pause, and giving vent to my feelings, say how lovely I found Matanzas. But ever since Byron's time, the author is always hearing the public say, "Don't be poetical," etc., etc.; and in these days both writer and reader seem to have discovered that life is too short for long descriptions,—so that when the pen of a G. P. R. James, waiting for the inspirations of its master, has amused itself with sketching a greater or less extent of natural scenery, the rule of the novel-reader is invariably, "Skip landscape, etc., to event on thirty-second page." Nevertheless, I will say that Matanzas is lovely,—with the fair harbor on one hand and the fair hills on the other, sitting like a mother between two beautiful daughters, who looks from one to the other and wonders which she loves best. The air from the water is cool and refreshing, the sky is clear and open, and the country around seems to beckon one to the green bosom of its shades. "Oh, what a relief after Havana!" one says, drawing a full breath, and remembering with a shudder the sickening puffs from its stirring streets, which make you think that Polonius lies unburied in every house, and that you nose him as you knows not, as you pass the door and window-gratings. With this exclamation and remembrance, you lower yourself into one of Mr. Ensor's rocking-chairs,—twelve of which, with a rickety table and a piano, four crimson tidies and six white ones, form the furniture of the Ensor drawing-room,—you lean your head on your hand, close your eyes, and wish for a comfortable room with a bed in it. A tolerable room you shall have; but for a bed, only a cot-bedstead with a sacking bottom,—further, nothing. Now, if you are some folks that I know, you will be able to establish very comfortable repose on this slender foundation, Nature having so amply furnished you that you are your own feather-bed, bolster, sofa-cushion, and easy-chair, a moving mass of upholstery, wanting only a frame to be set down in and supported. But if you should be one of Boston's normal skeletons, pinched in every member with dyspepsia, and with the mark of the beast Neuralgia on your forehead, then your skin will have a weary time of it, holding your bones, and you will be fain to entreat with tears the merciful mediation of a mattress.

Now I know very well that those of my readers who intend visiting Cuba will be much more interested in statistics of hotels than in any speculations, poetical or philosophical, with which I might be glad to recompense their patience. Let me tell them, therefore, that the Ensor House is neither better nor worse than other American hotels in Cuba. The rooms are not very bad, the attendance not intolerable, the table almost commendable. The tripe, salt-fish, and plantains were, methought, much as at other places. There were stews of meat, onions, sweet peppers, and ochra, which deserve notice. The early coffee was punctual; the tea, for a wonder, black and hot. True, it was served on a bare pine table, with the accompaniment only of a bit of dry bread,—no butter, cake, nor dulces. But Mr. Ensor has heard, no doubt, that sweet things are unwholesome, and is determined, at whatever cost to his own feelings, to keep them out of the way of his guests, who are, for the time, his children. Then there is an excellent English servant called John, whom, though the fair Ensor did berate him, we must enumerate among the comforts of the establishment. There is a dark corner about volantes, which they are disposed to order for you at a very unreasonable profit; but as there are plenty of livery stables at hand, and street volantes passing all the time, it will be your own fault if you pay six dollars where you ought to pay three.

The first thing to be done at Matanzas is to drive out and see the Cumbre, a hill in the neighborhood, and from it the valley of the Yumori. The road is an improvement on those already described;—the ruts being much deeper and the rocks much larger, the jolting is altogether more complete and effective. Still, you remember the doctrine that the volante cannot upset, and this blind faith to which you cling carries you through triumphantly. The Cumbre is lofty, the view extensive, and the valley lovely, of a soft, light green, like the early leaves and grass of spring, dotted everywhere with the palms and their dark clusters. It opens far, far down at your feet, and on your left you see the harbor quiet and bright in the afternoon sun, with a cheering display of masts and pennons. You would look and linger long, but that the light will wane, and you are on your way to Jenks his sugar-plantation, the only one within convenient distance of the town. Here the people are obviously accustomed to receive visitors, and are decently, not superfluously, civil. The major-domo hands you over to a negro who speaks English, and who salutes you at once with, "Good-bye, Sir!" The boiling here is conducted in one huge, open vat. A cup and saucer are brought for you to taste the juice, which is dipped out of the boiling vat for your service. It is very like balm-tea, unduly sweetened; and after a hot sip or so you return the cup with thanks. A loud noise, as of cracking of whips and of hurrahs, guides you to the sugar-mill, where the crushing of the cane goes on in the jolliest fashion. The building is octagonal and open. Its chief feature is a very large horizontal wheel, which turns the smaller ones that grind the cane. This wheel is turned after the following manner. In the centre of the building, and as it were in the second story, stands a stout post, to which are attached, at equal distances, six horizontal bars, which are dragged round by six horses, vehemently flogged by the like number of slaves, male and female. This is really a novel and picturesque sight. Each negro is armed with a short whip, and their attitudes, as they stand, well-balanced on the revolving wheel, are rather striking. Liberal as they were of blows and of objurations to the horses, all their cries and whipping produced scarcely a tenth of the labor so silently performed by the invisible, noiseless slave that works the steam-engine. From this we wandered about the avenues, planted with palms, cocoas, and manifold fruit-trees,—visited the sugar-fields, where many slaves were cutting the canes and piling them on enormous ox-carts, and came at last to a great, open field, where many head of cattle were quietly standing. Our negro guide had not been very lavish or intelligible in his answers to our numerous questions. We asked him about these cattle. "Dey cows," he replied. We asked if they gave milk, and if butter was made on the plantation. He seemed quite puzzled and confused, and finally exclaimed,—"Dat cows no got none wife." Coming nearer, we found that the cows were draught oxen, employed in dragging the canes and other produce of the plantation. Jenks his garden we found in good order, and beautiful with many plants in full blossom; but Jenks his house seemed dreary and desolate, with no books, a wretched print or so, dilapitated furniture, and beds that looked like the very essence of nightmare. Nothing suggested domestic life or social enjoyment, or anything ——; but as Jenks is perfectly unknown to us, either by appearance or reputation, we give only a guess in the dark, and would suggest, in case it may displease him, that he should refurnish and repaint a little, and diffuse an air of cheerfulness over his solitary villa, remembering that Americans have imaginations, and that visitors will be very apt to construct an unknown host from his surroundings.

The second thing to be done in Matanzas, if you arrive on Saturday, is to attend military mass at the Cathedral on Sunday morning. This commences at eight o'clock; but the hour previous may be advantageously employed in watching the arrival and arrangement of the female aristocracy of Matanzas. These enter in groups of twos and threes, carrying their prayer-books, and followed by slaves of either sex, who bear the prayer-carpet of their mistresses. The ladies are wonderfully got up, considering the early hour; and their toilettes suggest that they may not have undressed since the ball of the night before. All that hoops, powder, and puffery can do for them has been done; they walk in silk attire, and their hair is what is technically termed dressed. Some of them bring their children, bedizened like dolls, and mimicking mamma's gestures and genuflection in a manner more provoking to sadness than to satire. If the dressing is elaborate, the crossing is also. It does not consist of one simple cross, "in nomine Patris," etc.; they seem to make three or four crosses from forehead to chin, and conclude by kissing the thumb-nail, in honor of what or whom we could not imagine. Entering the middle aisle, which is divided from the rest by a row of seats on either side, they choose their position, and motion to the dark attendant to spread the carpet. Some of them evince considerable strategic skill in the selection of their ground. All being now in readiness, they drop on their knees, spread their flounces, cross themselves, open their books, and look about them. Their attendants retire a little, spread a handkerchief on the ground, and modestly kneel behind them, obviously expecting to be saved with the family. These are neatly, sometimes handsomely dressed. In this status things remain until the music of the regiment is heard. With a martial sound of trumpets it enters the church, and fills the aisles, the officers taking place within the chancel, and a guard of honor of eight soldiers ranging on either side of the officiating priest. And now our devotions begin in good earnest; for, simultaneously with the regiment, the jeunessé dorée of Matanzas has made its appearance, and has ranged itself along the two long lines of demarcation which separate the fair penitents from the rest of the congregation. The ladies now spread their flounces again, and their eyes find other occupation than the dreary Latin of their missals. There is, so to speak, a lively and refreshing time between the youths of both sexes, while the band plays its utmost, and Evangel, Kyrie, and Credo are recited to the music of Trovatore and Traviata. That child of four years old, dressed in white and gold flounces, and white satin boots with heels, handles her veil and uses her eyes like Mamma, eager for notice, and delighted with the gay music and uniforms. The moment comes to elevate the Host,—thump goes the drum, the guard presents arms, and the soldiers, instead of kneeling, bend forward, in a most uncomfortable manner. Another thump, and all that is over; the swords are returned to their sheaths, and soon, the loud music coming to an end, the regiment marches out of church, very much as it marched in, its devotional experiences being known to Heaven alone. Ladies and lovers look their last, the flounces rise in pyramids, the prayer-carpets are rolled up, and with a silken sweep and rush, Youth, Beauty, and Fashion forsake the church, where Piety has hardly been, and go home to breakfast. To that comfortable meal you also betake yourself, musing on the small heads and villanous low foreheads of the Spanish soldiery, and wondering how long it would take a handful of resolute Yankees to knock them all into—— But you are not a Filibuster, you know.

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