A Trip to Cuba

by Julia Ward Howe

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Chapter XIX - Farewell!

FAREWELL to Havana! the pleasant time is over. We are to return where we belong. Not with undue sentimentalism of sorrow, as though it were greater loss to see beautiful places and forsake them, than to have staid at Pudding-gut Point, Coxackie, or Martha's Vineyard all one's life, having beheld and regretted nothing else. When travellers tear themselves from the maternal bosom of Rome, a pang is inevitable, and its expression allowable. Even meretricious Paris sometimes harpoons an honest American heart more deeply than is fit. But there are those, born and bred amongst us, who return from their foreign travel with wide-mouthed lamentation over the past enjoyment. Others snippingly accost one with: "I cannot bear your climate,"——. "Strange," I reply, "since it bore you." We are not so deeply moved at leaving Havana, though to go to sea is always as unnatural an act as having a tooth pulled. The green earth reminds us that it is our element, and the slowly counted palms nod to us: "Remember,—remember!" We indulge ourselves in a last drive, and take kind farewell of the gay streets, the Plaza, the Paseo, and the Cerro, with its blue villas and palm-bordered gardens. Beautiful those gardens are in their own way,—Nature refusing to be kept down, but excusing her irregularities by their wild and graceful results. There is Count Fernandino's garden,—we have not described that, have we? Palms, flowers, fruit-trees, a marble pavilion with a marble Venus, a bath-house painted in fresco, paved with fine tiling, and lit through stained glass, an ethereal trellis and canopy of fairy-like iron-work, painted coral-red, and hung with vines, whose industry in weaving themselves is almost perceptible to the eye,—still, shady walks, and evermore palms. We passed a morning there with some botanical friends, and had much explained to us that we cannot possibly remember. This we did retain, that there are known on the island sixty varieties of palms, and that this garden contains at least forty of them.

And here is Doña Herrera's garden, which we visited one morning, with our friends of the Cup of Tea, (vide earlier letters). How soft and dewy was it in the morning light! the flowers had still the dreamy starlight in them. We ran about like children, admiring at every moment something new and strange. In the middle of the garden was a fairy lake, with a little mock steamboat upon it, the paddles being moved by hand. There were gas fixtures disposed throughout the grounds, which are lighted on the occasion of a fête champêtre. What a time the young people must have of it, then! There is an Aviary, too, with the remnant of a collection of tropical birds, and a small Menagerie, with a fox, a monkey, and a 'coon. We ask permission to see the house, and our friends having sent in their good names, Doña Maria walks slowly out to meet us. She is a plain, elderly woman, short and stout, with a pleasant voice and gentle manners. She has rather a splendid nest, for a bird of such sober plumage, but all its adornments are in good taste. She shows us first a cool Banqueting-room, where the table is invitingly laid for her Ladyship's own breakfast,—it is painted in fresco, and opens on the garden,—then come the Drawing-rooms, then an exquisite Bedroom hung with blue, the bed and mosquito-netting being adorned with rich lace, then a Picture-gallery, which serves as an Oratory, a cabinet in the wall containing and concealing the altar. Then comes a small room, adorned by her Ladyship's own hands, with paper flowers and stuffed birds, lighted by a pretty, tiny glass dome, and then, endless thanks, good Doña Maria, and farewell forever. For as I love not stuffed birds, nor paper flowers, no, nor mass neither, it is not likely that I shall bear your Ladyship company in Heaven, even should both of us get there, which, while we continue to live and sin, must be considered as uncertain.

Other visions unroll themselves as we review our Havana days and ways. Our voyage up the spire of the Cathedral, with swimming eyes and dizzy head. Our friends go bravely through it, and ascend even the last little rickety wooden staircase, calling back for us as the chimney-sweeper sings out from the top of the chimney. Where is Hulia? holding on to a beam with frantic eagerness, deaf to entreaty and encouragement. She is persuaded at last to relinquish it, and is hoisted, pushed, and dragged to the top where, opening her unwilling eyes, she seeks the first strong point of masonry, and hugs it, admiring the view in convulsive sentences, as occasion demands. The point is tolerably lofty, and the view extensive, but one loses many of its beauties in looking down from such an elevation. We must remember this, and not ascribe to St. Simeon Stylites too great an advantage in the enjoyment of natural scenery. Then, after the perilous descent, our exploration of the Cathedral itself, with its shrine of porphyry, and little other adornment,—the pious thoughtfulness of the Sacristan, who, when we pass the host, tells us that "His Majesty is there," and his look of amazement when we do not bow or bend the knee at this intelligence. Then, that refreshing season in the Sacristy, with a graceless young Sub-Deacon, intent upon extending to us all the hospitalities of the church. "Here is the incense,"—he burns some of it under our nostrils; "here is the wine for the Sacrament,—taste of it," and he pours out a tolerable portion, and, handing it to us to sip, tosses off the residue with a smack. "Here is the oil and salt for baptism,—you won't like that, but you may taste it if you choose." And then, he tumbles over all the priest's garments. "This crimson brocade is for high feasts,—this green for common occasions,—this black velvet for funerals,—this white scarf is for marriages." You really begin to regard the Priest as a sort of chameleon, whose color changes with the spiritual food he lives on. Rascal-neophyte, you will be as sanctimonious as the priest himself some day, and as sincere.

But all this is in the past, and we have got really to our last of Havana. The last purchases have been made; by great economy we have accomplished a little extravagance. The farewell visits have been paid,—we have paid also the necessary four dollars for the privilege of leaving the Island. Copious leave-takings follow, between ourselves and our long companions at the Hotel,—follow the Bill and servants' fees,—and then, having been waked after a short night's rest, there remains no further excuse for our not taking the boat at early morning, and delivering ourselves into their hands who are to return us to our native country.

So, Havana is done with. We are sad and sorry to leave it, but do not sentimentalize, recalling Sheridan's sensible lines:—

"Oh, matchless excellence! and must we part?

Well, if we must, we must, and in that case,

The less is said, the better."

There is a large party of us known to each other in our late wanderings; and as we meet on board, we make a tolerable attempt at cheerfulness. But the thought of the Northern cold lies heavy upon every heart, for though it is late in March, we know where the east wind is now, and will be for two months to come. We are soon in motion, and, casting a last look towards our sky-blue hotel, we see some of the Almy-ites waving flags of truce at us. We seize whatever is at hand, and make the usual frantic demonstrations. Farewell, Morro Castle! farewell, Isla de Cuba! We have nothing left us now but the Steamer. This is the Isabel, greatly be-puffed in the Charleston papers, but rarely praised, one should think, by those who have been in her. Breakfast is served us in a cabin without ventilation, where to breathe is disgusting, to eat, impossible. We explore our state-room,—the thermometer stands at 100° in it, but the day is hot, and we do not suspect any other reason for its high temperature. From these dens we emerge as quickly as possible to the open air, and get ourselves on deck. The Southern seas are always detestable; and though there is no wind to speak of, it soon gets rough, and people stiffen in their places, and go to sleep, or go below, and are never heard of more. Dinner is eaten mostly on the upper deck, but the demand is not large. Iced champagne proves a friend in need. We reach Key West early in the afternoon. The landing is ugly, and though we stop an hour or more, we are expressly told "ten minutes," in order that the Captain may not be bothered with our going on shore. We have here a last look at the cocoa-palm, which grows along the coast. White sea-corals are brought for sale; many turtles are taken on board and laid on their backs, their fins being tied together; also, an invalid in a chair, in the last stages of decline. The turtles remain, for the fifty-six hours that follow, helpless and untended. So piteous do they seem, that one of us suggests "the last sigh of the turtle" as a commemorative title for the aromatic soup that is to follow.

And this is all of Key West. On going below at bed-time, our bare feet find the floor of the state-room scorching hot. On inquiry, we find ourselves directly over the boiler,—a pleasant situation in an American steamer. We consider ourselves nearer translation than ever before, and go to sleep trying to show just reason why we should not be blown up, as better people have been, before morning.

Next morning—Oh let me here breathe a word of advice to those who plough the Southern seas. Rise early in the morning, if you mean to rise at all, for the sea is quietest then, before the wind is up; and if you are once dressed and on deck, you have a chance. Next morning none were able to get up who were not up by six o'clock,—for by that time the day's work was begun, and people only staid and stiffened where they were. Now do not fear, I have described sea-sickness once and for all; this paper shall not be nauseous with new details. But for love of the dear old Karnak, I must show up this pinchbeck Isabel; this dirty, disorderly floating prison, where no kind care alleviated one's miseries, and no suitable diet helped one's recovery. On board the Karnak, Steward, Stewardess, and Captain followed you up with the zeal of loving-kindness. Here, the hateful black servants flit past you like a dream. If you try to detain them, they vanish with a grin, and promising to return, take care to avoid you in future. N. B.—I call them hateful, because of the true American steam-boat breed, smirking, supercilious, and unserviceable. There, mattresses and cushions were plentifully supplied, and you might lie on deck, if you could not sit up. Here, not even a pillow could be brought. You sit all day bolt upright in a miserable wooden chair, holding your aching head first with this hand, now with that, and wondering that your suffering body can hold together so long. There, the log, the daily observation, the boatswain's whistle, the pleasant bells ringing the hour. Here, no log, no observation, no boatswain, no bells. There, in a word, comfort and confidence; here, distrust and disgust. But we drop the parallel.

To us, that dark day was as a vision of familiar faces, strangely distorted and discolored, of friends, usually kind and attentive, who sit grimly around, and looking on one's misery, do not stir to help it. There is a pillow, ah! if somebody would only lay it under this heavy head, that cannot be held up by the weary hand any longer. Henry there is going to do it,—he has got the pillow,—no, he puts it under his own head, regarding me with the glare of a sickly cannibal. One good creature flings half of her blanket over my shivering knees. I know not her name, nor her nature, but I know that she is blessed, and worthy of Paradise. Going below for a moment, I pass through the after-cabin, and see such a collection of wretches as would furnish forth a Chamber of Horrors to repletion. With tossed clothes, disordered hair, and wild eyes, they lie panting for air, which they don't get. We are better off up-stairs, and I return to my wooden chair and end of a blanket, with enthusiasm. But the day passes, and at night we are down again in the state-room over the boiler, with the ports screwed up, and no air to temper the heat. No matter, our weary skeleton refuses to be kept upright any more,—we lie and sleep. And at two in the morning, one of the strong-minded, who could not sleep, arose, and found that the sea was down, and that the ports might be opened, only that the man who had charge of them was asleep. Wherefore she aroused the slumbering traitor with the wholesome clarion of a woman's tongue, and he got up and fumbled about till he found the port-wrench, wherewith he unscrewed all the ports, and we took heart, and revived. The next day was all smooth sailing,—we ate our victuals on deck, and were thankful. And that evening, say at six o'clock, we made the welcome port of Charleston, and went on shore, hoping never to leave it more.

Let me not forget to say that at the last moment, when all possibility of service was over, the faithless blacks came about us, and were full of hopes that we were better, smiling and lingering very much as if they expected a fee. But if any of us were weak enough to comply with their desires, for the honor of human nature suffer me to draw a veil over such base compliance, and let the World think they got only what they deserved, which is little enough in any case, and in theirs, nothing.

And now, Reader, if I have one, farewell. The Preacher who speaks even to one, has his congregation before him, but the poor Scribbler is left to his own illusions, and calls up for himself a gorgeous Public, where perhaps he has only himself for company. Still, it is safest to imagine a Public; and having imagined one, I here take a kind leave of it. If any have followed me along in my travels, and wished me God-speed, I hereby thank them heartily. If any have treated with discourtesy a true word here and there which does not tally with their own notions, so much the worse for them, and for any cause which cannot bear sincerity. And so, wishing that you might all see the pleasant things I have described, and thinking that you cannot have been half so weary in reading these pages as I have been in writing them, I will prolong no further the sweet sorrow of parting, only God bless you, and Good-bye.


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