A Trip to Cuba

by Julia Ward Howe

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Chapter XIV - Game Chickens - Don Rodriguez - Day on the Plantation - Departure.

As there are prejudices in Cuba and elsewhere, touching the appropriate sphere of woman, Hulia was not taken to the Cockpit, as she had demanded and expected,—not to see the chickens fight, but to see the Spaniards see it.

Forgive her, ye Woman's-Righters, if on this occasion she was weak and obedient! You would have gone, no doubt,—those of you who have not husbands; but such as have must know how much easier it is to deal with the article man in his theoretical than in his real presence. You may succeed in showing by every convincement that you are his natural master and superior, and that there is every reason on earth why you should command and direct him. "No!——," says the wretch, shaking his fist, or shrugging his shoulders; and whatever your intimate convictions may be, the end is, that you do not.

Propitiated by that ready obedience which is safest, dear Sisters, in these contingencies, the proprietor of Hulia takes her, one morning, to see the establishment of a man of fortune in the neighborhood, where one hundred and forty game-chickens are kept for training and fighting. These chickens occupy two good-sized rooms, whose walls are entirely covered with compartments, some two feet square, in each of which resides a cock, with his little perch and drinking-vessel. They are kept on allowance of water and of food, lest they should get beyond fighting weight. Their voices are uplifted all day long, and on all moonlight nights. An old woman receives us, and conducts us to the training-pit, pointing out on the way the heroes of various battles, and telling us that this cock and the other have won mucho dinero, "much money." Each has also its appointed value;—this cock is worth forty dollars, this four ounces, this one six ounces,—oh, he is a splendid fellow! No periodal and sporadic hen-fever prevails here, but the gallo-mania is the chronic madness of the tropics.

The training-pit is a circular space inclosed with boards, perhaps some twelve feet in diameter. Here we find the proprietor, Don Manuel Rodriguez, with a negro assistant, up to the ears in business. Don Manuel is young, handsome, and vivacious, and with an air of good family that astonishes us. He receives us with courtesy, finds nothing unusual in the visit of a lady, but is too much engrossed with his occupation to accord us more than a passing notice. This is exactly as we could wish,—it allows us to study the Don, so to speak, au naturel. He is engaged at first in weighing two cocks, with a view to their subsequent fighting. Having ascertained their precise weight, which he registers in his pocket-memorandum, he proceeds to bind strips of linen around their formidable spurs, that in their training they may not injure each other with them. This being accomplished,—he all the while delivering himself with great volubility to his black Second,—the two cocks are taken into the arena; one is let loose there; the negro holds the other, and knocks the free fowl about the head with it. Sufficient provocation having been given, they are allowed to go at each other in their own fashion, and their attacks and breathing-spells are not very unlike a bout of fencing. They flap, fly at each other, fly over, peck, seize by the neck, let go, rest a moment, and begin again, getting more and more excited with each round. The negro separates them, when about to draw blood. And as for Don Manuel, he goes mad over them, like an Italian maestro over his favorite pupil. "Hombre, hombre!" he cries to the negro, "what a cock! By Heaven, what a couple! Ave María santísima! did one ever see such spirit? Santísima Trinidad! is there such fighting in all Matanzas?" Having got pretty well through with the calendar of the saints, he takes out his watch;—the fight has lasted long enough. One of the champions retires to take a little repose; another is brought in his place; the negro takes him, and boxes him about the ears of the remaining fowl,—brushing him above his head, and underneath, and on his back, to accustom him to every method of attack. Don Manuel informs us that the cock made use of in this way is the father of the other, and exclaims, with an air of mock compassion, Pobre padre! "Poor father!" The exercise being concluded, he takes a small feather, and cleans out therewith the throat of either chicken, which proves to be full of the sand of the arena, and which he calls porquería, "dirt."

We leave Don Manuel about to employ himself with other cocks, and, as before, too much absorbed to give our departure much notice. Strange to say, Hulia is so well satisfied with this rehearsal, that she expresses no further desire to witness the performance itself. We learn subsequently that Don Manuel is a man of excellent family and great wealth, who has lavished several fortunes on his favorite pursuit, and is hurrying along on the road to ruin as fast as chickens' wings can carry him. We were very sorry, but couldn't possibly interfere. Meantime, he appeared excessively jolly.

Our kind friends of the dinner were determined to pay us, in their persons, all the debts of hospitality the island might be supposed to contract towards strangers and Americans. Arrangements were accordingly made for us to pass our last day in Matanzas at a coffee-plantation of theirs, some four miles distant from town. They would send their travelling volante for us, they said, which was not so handsome as the city volante, but stronger, as it had need to be, for the roads. At eleven o'clock, on a very warm morning, this vehicle made its appearance at the door of the Ensor House, with Roqué in the saddle,—Roqué with that mysterious calesero face of his, knowing everything, but volunteering nothing until the word of command. Don Antoñico he tells us, has gone before on horseback;—we mount the volante, and follow. Roqué drives briskly at first, a slight breeze refreshes us, and we think the road better than is usual. But wait a bit, and we come to what seems an unworked quarry of coral rock, with no perceptible way over it, and Roqué still goes on, slowly indeed, but without stop or remark. The strong horses climb the rough and slippery rocks, dragging the strong volante after them. The calesero picks his way carefully; the carriage tips, jolts, and tumbles; the centre of gravity appears to be nowhere. The breeze dies away; the vertical sun seems to pin us through the head; we get drowsy, and dream of an uneasy sea of stones, whose harsh waves induce headache, if not sea-sickness. We wish for a photograph of the road;—first, to illustrate the inclusive meaning of the word; second, to serve as a remembrance, to reconcile us to all future highways.

Why these people are content to work out their road-tax by such sore travail of mind and body appeareth to us mysterious. The breaking of stone in state-prison is not harder work than riding over a Cuban road; yet this extreme of industry is endured by the Cubans from year to year, and from one human life to another, without complaint or effort. An hour or more of these and similar reflections brings us to a bit of smooth road, and then to the gate of the plantation, where a fine avenue of palms conducts us to the house. Here resides the relative and partner of our Matanzas friends, a man of intelligent and humane aspect, who comes to greet us, with his pleasant wife, and a pretty niece, their constant guest. The elder lady has made use of her retirement for the accomplishment of her mind. She has some knowledge of French and Italian, and, though unwilling to speak English, is able to translate from that language with entire fluency. The plantation-house is very pretty, situated just at the end of the palm-avenue, with all the flowers in sight,—for these are planted between the palms;—it has a deep piazza in front, and the first door opens into one large room, with sleeping-apartments on either side. Opposite this door is another, opening upon the court behind the house, and between the two our chairs are placed, courting the draught.—N. B. In Cuba, no one shuns a draught; you ride, drive, sit, and sleep in one, and, unless you are a Cuban, never take cold. The floor of this principal room is merely of clay rubbed with a red powder, which, mixed with water, hardens into a firm, polished surface. The house has but one story; the timbers of the roof, unwhitened, forming the only ceiling. The furniture consists of cane easy-chairs, a dining-table, and a pretty hammock, swung across one end of the room. Here we sit and talk long. Our host has many good books in French and Spanish,—and in English, Walter Scott's Novels, which his wife fully appreciates.

A walk is proposed, and we go first to visit los negros chiquitos,—Anglicè, "the small niggers," in their nursery. We find their cage airy enough; it is a house with a large piazza completely inclosed in coarse lattice-work, so that the pequeñuelos cannot tumble out, nor the nurses desert their charge. Our lady friend produces a key, unlocking a small gate which admits us. We found, as usual, the girls of eight and upwards tending the babies, and one elderly woman superintending them. On our arrival, African drums, formed of logs hollowed out, and covered with skin at the end, were produced. Two little girls proceeded to belabor these primitive instruments, and made a sort of rhythmic strumming, which kept time to a monotonous chant. Two other girls executed a dance to this, which, for its slowness, might be considered an African minuet. The dancing children were bright-looking, and not ungraceful. Work stops at noon for a recess; and the mothers run from the field to visit the imprisoned babies, whom they carry to their own homes and keep till the afternoon-hour for work comes round, which it does at two, P. M. We went next to the negro-houses, which are built, as we have described others, contiguous, in one hollow square. On this plantation the food of the negroes is cooked for them, and in the middle of the inclosed square stood the cooking-apparatus, with several large caldrons. Still, we found little fires in most of the houses, and the inmates employed in concocting some tidbit or other. A hole in the roof serves for a chimney, where there is one, but they as often have the fire just before their door. The slaves on this plantation looked in excellent condition, and had, on the whole, cheerful countenances. The good proportion of their increase showed that they were well treated, as on estates where they are overworked they increase scarcely or not at all. We found some of the men enjoying a nap between a board and a blanket. Most of the women seemed busy about their household operations. The time from twelve to two is given to the negroes, besides an hour or two after work in the evening, before they are locked up for the night. This time they improve mostly in planting and watering their little gardens, which are their only source of revenue. The negroes on this estate had formed a society amongst themselves for the accumulation of money; and our friend, the Manager of the plantation, told us that they had on his books two thousand dollars to their credit. One man alone had amassed six hundred dollars, a very considerable sum, under the circumstances. We visited also the house of the mayoral, or overseer, whose good face seemed in keeping with the general humane arrangements of the place,—as humane, at least, as the system permits. The negroes all over the island have Sunday for themselves; and on Sunday afternoons they hold their famous balls, which sometimes last until four o'clock on Monday morning. Much of the illness among the negroes is owing to their imprudence on these and like occasions. Pneumonia is the prevalent disease with them, as with the slaves in our own South; it is often acute and fatal. Everything in Cuba has such a tendency to go on horseback, that we could not forbear asking if dead men did, and were told that it was so,—the dead negroes being temporarily inclosed in a box, and conveyed to the cemetery on the back of a horse. Our friend, seeing our astonishment, laughed, and told us that the poor whites were very glad to borrow the burial-horse and box, to furnish their own funerals.

Dinner was served at four o'clock, quite informally, in the one sitting-room of the house. A black girl brushed off the flies with a paper fly-brush, and another waited on table. The dinner was excellent; but I have already given so many bills of fare in these letters, that I will content myself with mentioning the novelty of a Cuban country-dish, a sort of stew, composed of ham, beef, mutton, potatoes, sweet potatoes, yuca, and yams. This is called Ayacco, and is a characteristic dish, like eel-soup in Hamburg, or salt codfish in Boston;—as is usual in such cases, it is more relished by the inhabitants than by their visitors. On the present occasion, however, it was only one among many good things, which were made better by pleasant talk, and were succeeded by delicious fruits and coffee. After dinner we visited the vegetable garden, and the well, where we found Candido, the rich negro who had saved six hundred dollars, drawing water with the help of a blind mule. Now the Philanthrope of our party was also a Phrenologist, and had conceived a curiosity to inspect the head of the very superior negro who had made all this money; so at his request Candido was summoned from the well, and ordered to take off his hat. This being removed disclosed the covering of a cotton handkerchief, of which he was also obliged to divest himself. Candido was much too well bred to show any signs of contumacy; but the expression of his countenance varied, under the observation of the Phrenologist, from wonder to annoyance, and from that to the extreme of sullen, silent wrath. The reason was obvious,—he supposed himself brought up with a view to bargain and sale; and when informed that he had a good head, he looked much inclined to give somebody else a bad one. He was presently allowed to go back to his work; and our sympathies went with him, as it would probably take some days to efface from his mind the painful impression that he was to be sold, the last calamity that can happen to a negro who is in kind hands. We now wandered through the long avenues of palm and fruit trees with which the estate was planted, and saw the stout black wenches at their out-door occupations, which at this time consisted chiefly in raking and cleansing the ground about the roots of the trees and flowers. Their faces brightened as their employers passed, and the smaller children kissed hands. Returned to the house, we paused awhile to enjoy the evening red, for the sun was already below the horizon. Then came the volante, and with heartfelt thanks and regrets we suffered it to take us away.

And who had been the real hero of this day? Who but Roqué, fresh from town, with his experience of Carnival, and his own accounts of the masked ball, the Paseo, and the Señorita's beaux? All that durst followed him to the gate, and kissed hands after him. "Adios, Roqué! Roqué, adios!" resounded on all sides; and Roqué, the mysterious one, actually smiled in conscious superiority, as he nodded farewell, and galloped off, dragging us after him.

As we drove back to Matanzas in the moonlight, a sound of horses' feet made us aware that Don Antoñico, the young friend who had planned and accompanied our day's excursion, was to be our guard of honor on the lonely road. A body-servant accompanied him, like-wise mounted. Don Antoñico rode a milk-white Cuban pony, whose gait was soft, swift, and stealthy as that of a phantom horse. His master might have carried a brimming glass in either hand, without spilling a drop, or might have played chess, or written love-letters on his back, so smoothly did he tread the rough, stony road. All its pits and crags and jags, the pony made them all a straight line for his rider, whose unstirred figure and even speech made this quite discernible. For when a friend talks to you on the trot, much gulping doth impede his conversation,—and there is even a good deal of wallop in a young lady's gallop. But our friend's musical Spanish ran on like a brook with no stones in it, that merely talks to the moonlight for company. And such moonlight as it was that rained down upon us, except where the palm-trees spread their inverted parasols, and wouldn't let it! And such a glorification of all trees and shrubs, including the palm, which we are almost afraid to call again by name, lest it should grow "stuck up," and imagine there were no other trees but itself! And such a combination of tropical silence, warmth, and odor! Even in the night, we did not forget that the aloe-hedges had red in them, which made all the ways beautiful by day. Oh! it was what good Bostonians call "a lovely time"; and it was with a sigh of fulness that we set down the goblet of enjoyment, drained to the last drop, and getting, somehow, always sweeter towards the bottom.

For it was set down at the Ensor House, which we are to leave to-night, half-regretful at not having seen the scorpion by which we always expected to be bitten; for we had heard such accounts of it, patrolling the galleries with its venomous tail above its head, that we had thought a sight might be worth a bite. It was not to be, however. The luggage is brought; John is gratified with a peso; and we take leave with entire good-will.

I mention our departure, only because it was Cuban and characteristic. Returning by boat to Havana, we were obliged to be on board by ten o'clock that evening, the boat starting at eleven. Of course, the steamer was nowhere but a mile out in the stream; and a little cockle-shell of a row-boat was our only means of attaining her. How different, ye good New Yorkers and Bostonians, from your afternoon walk on board the "Bay State," with valise and umbrella in hand, and all the flesh-pots of Egypt in ——, well, in remembrance! After that degree of squabbling among the boatmen which serves to relieve the feelings of that habitually disappointed class of men, we chose our craft, and were rowed to the steamer, whose sides were steep and high out of water. The arrangements on board were peculiar. The body of the main deck was occupied by the gentlemen's cabin, which was large and luxurious. A tiny after-cabin was fitted up for the ladies. In the region of the machinery were six horrible staterooms, bare and dirty, the berths being furnished simply with cane-bottoms, a pillow, and one unclean sheet. Those who were decoyed into these staterooms endured them with disgust while the boat was at anchor; but when the paddle-wheels began to revolve, and dismal din of clang and bang and whirr came down about their ears, and threatened to unroof the fortress of the brain, why then they fled madly, precipitately, leaving their clothes mostly behind them. But I am anticipating. The passengers arrived and kept arriving; and we watched, leaning over the side, for Don Antoñico, who was to accompany our voyage. Each boat had its little light; and to see them dancing and toppling on the water was like a fairy scene. At last came our friend; and after a little talk and watching of the stars, we betook ourselves to rest.

Many of the Dons were by this time undressed, and smoking in their berths. As there was no access to the ladies' cabin, save through the larger one, she who went thither awaited a favorable moment and ran, looking neither to the right hand nor the left. The small cabin was tolerably filled by Cuban ladies in full dress.—Mem. They always travel in their best clothes.—The first navigation among them was a real balloon-voyage, with collisions; but they soon collapsed and went to bed. All is quiet now; and she of whom we write has thrown herself upon the first vacant bed, spreading first a clean napkin on the extremely serviceable pillow. Sleep comes; but what is this that murders sleep? A diminutive male official going to each berth, and arousing its fair occupant with "Doña Teresita," or whatever the name may be, "favor me with the amount of your passage-money." No comment is necessary; here, no tickets,—here, no Stewardess to mediate between the unseen Captain and the unprotected female! The sanctuary of the sex invaded at midnight, without apology and without rebuke! Think of that, those passengers who have not paid their fare, and, when invited to call at the Captain's office and settle, do so, and be thankful! The male passengers underwent a similar visitation. It is the Cuban idea of a compendious and economic arrangement.

And here ends our account of Matanzas, our journey thither, stay, and return. Peace rest upon the fair city! May the earthquake and hurricane spare it! May the hateful Spanish government sit lightly on its strong shoulders! May the Filibusters attack it with kisses, and conquer it with loving-kindness! So might it be with the whole Island—vale!

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