A Trip to Cuba

by Julia Ward Howe

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Chapter XVI - San Antonio - Church on Sunday - The Norther - The S. Family.

THE least shrub has its blossom, if you only know how to find it. The dullest country town in New England has its days when people hear speeches and get drunk, the one act illustrating the morals, the other the manners of the community. In like manner, the smallest village in Cuba has its Sunday, when the imprisoned women go to church in their best clothes, the men attend cockfights, and in the evening there is ball or sermon, according as the Church makes feast or fast. The population of San Antonio does not seem particularly given to weekday devotion, nor indeed do you anywhere in Cuba find men and women praying in the churches, as you do in Rome. There is a degree of sobriety among the people in all things, partly Spanish, it may be, partly the result of the extreme climate,—certain it is, that the Cuban Spaniard has not, either in pleasure or devotion, the extravagance of the French or Italian. The church at San Antonio was always open, but I always found it empty, except on the one Sunday morning when I went thither to observe manners and customs. High mass was at eight o'clock, and was in all respects a miniature of the same ceremonial as described at Matanzas, the accompaniment of martial music and the regiment being left out. The body of the church was covered with prayer-carpets, which were closely occupied by kneeling figures. The display of good dresses and good looks was cheerful and invigorating. There was less flouncing and fanning, methought, than in the larger town; but no doubt the usual telegraphy was carried on, only in a more covert manner, as became the severer exigencies of village decorum. The priest went through his harmless little functions at the altar with what seemed to be a calico Dalmatique on his back, but we have no doubt that it was a brocade of creditable thickness. What he said was, of course, inaudible. Juanito was at the organ, perched sideways in a high gallery, so that his impish face and dancing eyes formed a part of the picture. Though nearer heaven in his position, he looked more full of the devil (pardon the expression) than we had ever seen him. With him were three young choristers, laboring away at the "Kyrie Eleison,"—he made the fourth in the Quartette, and played the accompaniment, too, losing, moreover, nothing of what went on below. The music was good, very like something of Mozart's, but when subsequently interrogated, Juanito declared it to have been a Capriccio of his own. We can only say, that if it was not Mozart's, we shall certainly hear of Juanito some day, as a composer.

The two old beggars who take off their tattered hats with such stately humility all the week, were here to-day, but did not beg in church. Item, they do not chatter like their Italian brethren in the trade, but commence a slow statement of their grievances, which you interrupt with "nada," nothing, when they walk sadly away. A Cuban generally gives them something, and always without rebuke. In the church was, too, a kneeling figure of Christ, neither divine nor human, fastened to a platform, with four lanterns at the four corners,—it is carried through the streets on Fridays in Lent for devotion, and the priests chant, and bear candles before it.

Well, Mass is over, and we walk back to the hotel,—and here is our pretty neighbor, Maria Luisa, watching at the door to see the people come from church. "What, not at Mass, Maria Luisa?" "No, I'm so sorry, but Papa is away, and Dolores has a cold, and Mariquilla has been sitting up with a sick friend, so there was no one to go with me." Clearly, there is a laxity in matters of religion in the house opposite. On the other hand public opinion, even in San Antonio, would never have permitted Maria Luisa, or any other female under sixty to have walked the quiet streets without escort, upon whatever errand of piety or of charity. Scarcely to the bedside of a dying mother might she go, unattended by a suitable companion. We pass the remainder of the Sunday in quiet resignation to the heat, the thermometer standing at 86 in the shade, (say, on the fourth of March,) and letter-writing causing one to perspire like a wood-sawyer, or a stout youth in the Polka. For the nobler sex, there is the cockpit,—all the cafés and billiards too are full of soldiers and countrymen,—one hears the click of the balls throughout the quiet streets. Towards sunset we walk out, and find the village alive with little groups of people, and the windows of the houses, at least the window-gratings, filled with the best women in the best dresses. Some of them are well got-up. All look cool, easy, and indolent. Here and there is seen amongst them the glimmer of a furtive cigar. We pass the Cavalry Barracks, once a spacious monastery, and see the horses gathered in from their wide pasture for the night. They obey the voice, and with a little driving, make a tolerable charge at the arched doorway, and carry it in style. The sense of smell too is regaled with the savory odors of the soldiers' supper, and looking in at a grating, we see huge stewpans simmering over charcoal fires,—the rest in darkness, for it now grows late. The men are a stouter looking set than the regiment we saw at Matanzas, but the horses have not the bone and muscle requisite for heavy action,—they could only make respectable light-horse. Returning home, we meet our friends of the house opposite going to "Sermon," as they tell us, for this is Lent, and not Carnival. Mamma wears a black veil,—the others are bareheaded. We have still tea to look forward to, but under such difficulties! we have given a dollar for a teapot which in Boston should cost twenty-five cents. Our precious pound of black tea, brought from home, has not yet given out, but how hard is it to make Antonio, the head-waiter, put the tea in the pot, make the water boil, and pour it boiling over the tea. Yet this sacred rite we accomplish every evening. It has the solemnity of a religious observance, for where the tea-table is, there is home. After tea, a chair by the well in the middle of the Court, and a silent feast of tropical starlight. The lady of the house is chattering nothings with that queer Californian, who looks as much like a spoiled preacher as anything. The excitable Carolinian has got some one to hear him abuse Cuba, and glorify Charleston. Yonder at the left angle the flare of a lamp betrays the kitchen, and in the next compartment of the picture Polonia, the slave washer-woman, who has been kept at the ironing-table all day, vents her feelings in passionate snatches of talk, shakes her kerchiefed head, tosses her arms about, and returns to the ironing with more determination than ever. Poor slave,—a great debt was piled up against her before she was born, and the labor of all her life cannot work it out. Bankrupt must she die, and hand down the debt, sole inheritance, to her children. So the world to the slave is a debtor's prison, with a good or bad Jailer, and for utmost alleviation, an occasional treat all round. And while the cooking, and chattering, and ironing goes on about us, Reader, you and I will ponder this, sitting by the well, under the stars set an hundred thousand miles deep in the dark velvet of the tropical heavens.

This was Sunday, and with the next day came one of those changes which resemble in kind, not in degree, the caprices of our own Continental climate. The day has been a little less genial than usual, still we are all comfortably seated at dinner, when a sudden wind shakes the house, and blowing in furiously at the blinds, threatens to make the tablecloth fly over our heads. A fierce shower of rain follows,—our table is set in a gallery inclosed on one side only with Venetian blind-work, and through this the rain rushes at us like a volley of canes flung into the pit of a theatre. It grows dark, and for an hour or so, very cold. There is an instantaneous closing of doors and wooden window-shutters, and we of the Dinner protect ourselves from the wet and chill with the few warm garments we have with us,—for is not the bulk of our solid clothing laid up at Havana in that sea-trunk which we could wish never to open again? We pass the remainder of the afternoon under hatches, as it were. The rain soon exhausts itself, but the cold wind continues for some days. This is the Norther, fatal to yellow fever, but fatal also to those who are ill of it, and dreaded by all patients whatever. To us, the storm being over, the wind is only chilly, bringing with it a dull sky, and the desire for exercise, but the invalids shrivel up in it like rose-leaves in a frost,—the hectic gives place to deadly pallor, and the purple hues that mark the orbit of the eye come out, stronger than ever. Meeting, they interrogate each other's faces with anxious looks, as if wishing to see what headway their little community could keep against the common foe. The aspect of the streets is changed. The women scarcely appear, save where you see the heads of three or four of them in a row, looking through the small square breathing-hole cut in the window-shutters, and giving one the idea of so many people standing erect in their coffins. The men walk moodily about, each one enveloped in the dark folds of a Spanish cloak, or capa, of which the material varies from fine to coarse, but the shape is always the same. These solemn, stalking figures so resemble the mysterious personages of the theatre, the bandits, spies, disguised lovers, and other varmint, that we saw for once where the stage has preserved a tradition of real life, these costumes having been, no doubt, long since imitated from Spain, and never changed.

What crime is this grave man meditating, with heavy brow and splendid eyes? Murder or conspiracy, at least. No, he only wants to purchase a string of onions at that shop at the corner. And this melancholy hero with the pale olive complexion, dark as the stage-Romeo after he has bought the poison? He enters yonder door to refresh himself with a glass of aguardiente, and a game of billiards. At the house opposite, Dolores complains of "muchisima flussion,"—a most severe cold. "Is it the President's Message?" we ask. "No, in San Antonio they call the cold 'el Polvorin,' after the powder-magazine that exploded, last year, in Havana." We tell Dotor Hernandez that he must cure Dolores, and he promises her a "vomitivo" next morning, the very mention of which considerably hastens her convalescence. The health of the village is suffering from the Norther, the Doctor has his hands full. Mariquilla must give us some account of the sick friend she is nursing. "He has a Calentura, (fever of the country,) with delirium. They treat him with leeches, bleeding, borage tea, mustard at the feet; around the head bread with oil, vinegar, and pepper, as a preventivo." "Why," cried one of us, "you have seasoned him and stuffed him with herbs, fit for roasting." Dotor Hernandez gravely explains and defends his practice.

While the Norther is in full force, we go to pay a visit to Don Juan Sanchez, a man of wealth and position in San Antonio, and proprietor of large estates in the neighborhood. Don Juan is not at home,—his wife, Doña Tomasita, and the Tutor, an elderly Frenchman, receive us. She is young, but the mother of seven children. At our request, the nursery is reviewed in the parlor, as follows: Enter Manuel, eight years of age, enveloped in the stage cloak, and with the utmost gravity of countenance. He marches up to us, and startles us by inquiring after our health, in very good English. Enter Tomas Ignacio, seven years of age, also in a capa, and grave. This infant addressed us in French, and took a seat beside his brother. He was followed by two noble imps, of six and five, dressed in the same manner, and with the same decorum. These four creatures in linen suits, with black cloaks, were positively imposing, and it was not until Dolorita, the baby, had begun to howl in her mother's arms, and Ricardo, the three-year old, to tumble on the floor at her feet, that we could feel we were in the presence of lawless, spontaneous childhood. Before we departed, Doña Tomasita kindly placed her whole house, and all her earthly goods at our disposition, and we, with great moderation, claimed only the right of exit at her front door.


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