A Trip to Cuba

by Julia Ward Howe

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Chapter XV - Return to Havana - San Antonio Again.

NOT many days did we tarry in Havana, on our return. We found the city hot, the hotel full, the invalids drooping. The heat and the confined life (many of them never crossed the threshold) began to tell upon them, and to undo the good work wrought by the mild winter. They talked of cooling breezes, and comfortable houses, with windows, carpets, and padded sofas. Home was become a sort of watchword among them, exchanged with a certain subdued rapture. One of them was on the brink of a longer journey. He had been the worst case all winter, and since our arrival, had rarely left his room. A friend was now come to take him to his father's house, but he failed so rapidly, that it was feared the slender thread would be broken before the sailing of the steamer should allow him to turn his face homewards. The charities of the Cubans, such as they are, do not extend to the bodies of dead Protestants,—for them is nothing but the Potter's Field. This gross Priest, that shameless woman shall lie in consecrated ground, but our poor countryman, pale and pure as he looked, would defile the sainted inclosure, and must be cast out, with dogs and heretics. So there was a sort of hush, even in the heartless hotel-life, and an anxious inquiry every morning,—"Is he yet alive?"

"Just alive," and for a moment, people were really interested. But the day of departure came at last, and he was carried on board in a chair, his coffin following him. His closed eyes were too weak to open on the glorious tropical noon, and take a last leave of its beauty, and of the dry land he was never to see again; for he died, we afterwards learned, the day before the vessel reached New York, without pain or consciousness. And many thus depart. In this very hotel died glorious Dr. Kane, having, like a few other illustrious men, compressed all the merits of a long life in the short years of youth. When he was carried from these walls, a great concourse rose up to attend him, and when the procession passed the Governor's palace, the dark Concha himself, the centre of power and despotism, stood at the gate, hat in hand, to do reverence to the noble corpse. A practical word àpropos of these things. A flight to the tropics is apt to be like a death-bed repentance, deferred to the last moment, and with no appreciable benefit. Not only giving,—everything is done twice which is done quickly,—Time and Disease having between them a ratio too mysterious and rapid for computation. Ye who must fly, wounded, from the terrible North, fly in season, before the wound festers and rankles,—otherwise you escape not, bringing Death with you. Do not rush moreover to a hotel in the heart of Havana, and falling down there, refuse to be removed. Pulmonary patients rarely profit in Havana, whose climate is tainted with the sea-board, and further, with all the abominations of the dirtiest of cities. Santa Cruz has a better climate than Cuba,—so has Nassau, but in Cuba there are better places than Havana. San Antonio is better,—Guines, Guanabacoa, even Matanzas, are all healthier. Best of all is to reside on a coffee or sugar-plantation in the interior, but to attain this object, special letters are necessary,—as before observed, neither your Banker, nor our Consul, will help you to it.

We find little news in Havana. B. has gone to Trinidad de Cuba,—C. has gone to New Orleans. The Bachelor who daily treated to oranges is among the departed, and remembering his benefactions, we wish him a safe return and continuance of celibacy. Carnival has been gay,—Concha gave a Ball, and our Consul plucked up heart and went, and introduced eight of our countrywomen, elegantly dressed, no doubt, and not speaking a word of Spanish, nor the Consul neither,—one of the requisites of an American foreign Official being that he shall be capable of no foreign language. This rule has been rigorously adhered to by the Administration for twenty years past, and in some instances, a tolerable ignorance of English has been added, as a merit of supererogation. However, to return to the Ball, one of the ladies performed in Boarding-school French, and as far as looks went, they made a decidedly good impression. The little English Lords are expected,—Ladies, do not flutter so!—it is not the fascinating English Lord who has glittered like a diamond for two years past on the finger of Washington diplomacy. These are Boys, and by all accounts, good ones.

There is an Englishman at the hotel already, and he quarrels with his victuals in a manner that is awful, quite reminding one of the stories of unthankful children, whom the wolves get. And he labors with the unknown Spanish like a ship at sea, and steers for this dish and that with undistinguishable orders. Though I know him not, I must help him when I see him struggling so for his dinner, winking, pointing, and sputtering to the waiters without result. The wretch has been in Italy, and would make the softer idiom serve his turn here. "Riso, eh, riso, riz, rice," says he, with extended index. "Trae el arroz al Señor" comes timely to his aid, and with a few more helpings he is fed, though not satisfied. So irrational, so unappeasable is his appetite, that one cannot help thinking he has heard the story of the Belly and the Members in his youth, and has determined to avenge the injured ganglion of its ancient tormentors.

But among so many faces, remembered and sketched with little pleasure, there is one whose traits I must record as a labor of love. It belonged to one of the recent arrivals at the hotel, and was first seen in strong contrast with the countenance of the gluttonous Englishman, which it regarded with grave wonder. Expressive dark eyes, fine brows, heavy black hair, and a clear skin, subdued by ill-health, were its principal points of interest, but such enumeration can give you no more idea of its charm than an auctioneer's catalogue of furniture can suggest the features of a happy home. I had heard of its owner, but had never seen her before, yet we met somehow like people who had known each other, and a few commonplace phrases ended in a dialogue like this: "Are you A?"—"Yes,—are you B?"—"Yes;" and eternal friendship, though not sworn, set in immediately, and still perseveres. Modesty forbids us to praise our friend,—the very epithet "my friend," says the utmost we can say for any one. So I must not further celebrate my new-found treasure, who from this moment became the companion of all my steps in Cuba. I will only say that she was an apple-blossom of our Northern Spring, grafted upon a noble Southern stock, and turning her face now to the regions of the sun for healing warmth. Readers! you have all heard of her,—you would all give your ears to know her name. Keep them, you shall not.

In this pleasant company we sought San Antonio again. My friend was not doing well in Havana, and the graceful head was bowed every day lower by pain and weakness. But once out of the pent-up city, the head rose like a lily after rain, and all the little journey was pleasure and surprise. The tangled thickets, the new trees, the strange flowers, filled her with admiration. This was Cuba. Havana was, what is everywhere almost alike, the World. And soon we came to the clear, low-running river, with its green, bushy banks. And the next whistle of the steam-engine, like a fairy horn, called up the pretty village, with its streets and bridges, its one church, and its diminutive Plaza. We walk along the newly paved street, lined with small dwellings built of palm and plaster. The naked children are playing at the doors, the fathers and mothers are making cigars, or smoking them, the soldiers are walking vacantly about, and the small shopkeepers are looking out from behind their dull counters, piled with the refuse of the better markets. Here is the American Hotel, and just opposite, the eternal piano is playing "Norma," as it always did twelve hours out of twenty-four, and was a nuisance. But let me not grumble, for at the door of that house stand Mariquilla and Dolores, to welcome me back, and, hearing their voices, Norma leaves the instrument of her revenge, and comes out to embrace me. It is pleasant, is it not, to arrive where some one is glad to see you? These kind people quite warm my heart with their welcome. Mrs. L. at the hotel, too, is always glad to see a boarder, especially if he have with him a trunk that looks like staying. So we are fèted all around, and have the best rooms given us, and are happy.

In the evening, I betake myself to the house opposite, which was familiar to me in my earlier visit, but of which I now speak for the first time. Its inmates are in comfortable, though moderate circumstances, and their habits are the type of Cuban village-life. Here I meet the accustomed circle,—fie! they have no circle, but sit in two long parallel lines, and rock, and smoke at each other. Papa is a small, slight Spaniard, with good manners and no teeth. Mamma is not more than forty,—a massive, handsome woman, with that dignity of expression which is beyond beauty,—she is simple in her dress, and quiet in all her ways, but her thoughtful eyes make you remember her. Mariquilla is a buxom girl, some thirty years of age, who uses ten cosmetics in her bath, and still preserves a tolerably fresh complexion. Dolores is quiet and gentle, and spends her days in taking care of two little motherless children, whose father brings them every morning, and takes them away at night. Maria Luisa, whom I call Norma, is the only daughter of the family. She is pretty and modest, slight and small, like her father, but with fine eyes. She is a great Belle, we are told, in the neighborhood, and her musical accomplishment is considered prodigious. Besides these we find Dotor Hernandez, the village Physician, an Aragonese, thick-set and vigorous, with a good honest face, and Juanito, the Music-Master, a youth of eighteen, from Barcelona, with straight black hair, a pock-marked countenance, and a pair of as mischievous black eyes as ever looked demurely into the mysteries of the divine art. He is just offering cigarettes to all the family. Mamma has taken one, so have Dolores and Mariquilla,—he hands me the little packet with: "Te fuma, Hulita?" and seems rather surprised at my refusal, supposing doubtless that women of a certain age smoke, all over the world. One small lamp dimly illuminates this family party. When music is proposed, two candles, not of wax, are lighted, and placed on the piano. I sing a song or two, which they are good enough to call "muy bonito," and then, Maria Luisa, invited in turn, thunders through "Norma," from Overture to Finale. Oh! I have not described the piano,—it is a grand one, and bears the name of Stoddard. It should be about sixty years old, and would seem to have been through three generations and ten boarding-schools. It is a sort of skeleton piano, empty of music, and the rattling of its poor old bones makes mine ache. After the Opera, dancing is proposed. Juanito is disabled with a lame hand, and Maria Luisa volunteers to play the new contra-danza. It is christened "the Atlantic Telegraph," and is full of jerks and interruptions, having nothing very definite about it. We have learned the contra-danza of Dolores, on a former occasion, but now they all say "Hulita must dance with the Doctor," and to that consummate honor she resigns herself. That distinguished functionary divests himself of his cigar, polishes his perspiring forehead with his handkerchief, and offers himself as a candidate for her hand. "Vamos," he says, and they begin a slow, circling measure, to a music which is nondescript. Quiet work this, none of your spasmodic Waltzes, kicking Polkas, and teetotum jigmarigs. This gentle revolution seems imitated from the movement of the planets, or perhaps the dance of the seasons,—gravity pervades it,—it is a slow eternity. The rest of the family group has resolved itself into couples,—we all go round and round, and suddenly confront each other for a right and left, and look delighted, and then go round again. This dreamy performance goes on, until we have just sense enough left to remember that there is such a thing as bed-time. We break off, inquire the hour, find it late, say that we must go, which occasions no surprise. The piano ceases,—the candles are put out. There is a general kissing and "Buenas noches, Hulita." Dotor Hernandez sees us home. We pass every evening at the house opposite, and all the evenings are like this.


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