A Trip to Cuba
THE HARBOR OF HAVANA.
As we have said, there were some official mysteries connected with the arrival of our steamer in Nassau ; but these did not compare with the visitations experienced in Havana. As soon as we had dropped anchor, a swarm of dark creatures came on board, with gloomy brows, mulish noses, and suspicious eyes. This application of Spanish files proves irritating to the good-natured captain, and uncomfortable to all of us. All possible documents are produced for their satisfaction,-bill of lading, bill of health, and so on. Still they persevere in tormenting the whole ship's crew, and regard us, when we pass, with all the hatred of race in their rayless eyes. "Is it a crime,” we are disposed to ask, “ to have a fair Saxon skin, blue eyes, and red blood ? ” Truly, one would seem to think so; and the first glance at this historical race makes clear to us the Inquisition, the Conquest of Granada, and the ancient butcheries of Alva and Pizarro.
As Havana is an unco uncertain place for accommodations, we do not go on shore, the first night, but, standing close beside the bulwarks, feel a benevolent pleasure in seeing our late companions swallowed and carried off like tidbits by the voracious boatmen below, who squabble first for them and then with them, and so gradually disappear in the darkness. On board the “ Karnak ” harmony reigns serene. The custom-house wretches are gone, and we are, on the whole, glad we did not murder them. Our little party enjoys tea and bread-and-butter together for the last time. After so many mutual experiences of good and evil, the catguts about our tough old hearts are loosened, and discourse the pleasant music of Friendship. An hour later, I creep up to the higher deck, to have a look-out forward, where the sailors are playing leap-frog and dancing fore-and-afters. I have a genuine love of such common sights, and am quite absorbed by the good fun before me, when a solemn voice sounds at my left, and, looking round, I perceive Can Grande, who has come up to explain to me the philosophy of the sailor’s dances, and to unfold his theory of amusements, as far as the narrow area of one little brain (mine, not his) will permit. His monologue, and its interruptions, rail very much as follows—
I.—This is a pleasant sight, isn’t it ? Can Grande. — It has a certain interest, as exhibiting the inborn ideal tendency of the human race;-no tribe of people so wretched, so poor, or so infamous as to dispense with amusement, in some form or other.
Voice from below.— Play up, Cook ! That’s but a slow jig ye’re fluting away at.
Can Grande. — I went once to the Five Points of New York, with a police-officer and two philanthropists ;-our object was to investigate that lowest phase of social existence.—
Bang, whang, go the wrestlers below, with loud shouts and laughter. I give them one eye and ear,—Can Grande has me by the other.
Can Grande.—I went into one of their miserable dance-saloons. I saw there the vilest of men and the vilest of women, meeting with the worst intentions ; but even for this they had the fiddle, music and dancing. Without this little crowning of something higher, their degradation would have been intolerable to themselves and to each other.—
Here the, man who gave the back in leap-frog suddenly went down in the middle of the leap, bringing with him the other, who, rolling on the deck, caught the traitor by the hair, and pommelled him to his heart’s content. I ventured to laugh, and exclaim, “ Did you see that ? ”
Can Grande.-Yes; that is very common.-At that dance of death, every wretched woman had such poor adornment as her circumstances allowed, — a collar, a tawdry ribbon, a glaring false jewel, her very rags disposed with the greater decency of the finer sex,—a little effort at beauty, a sense of it. The good God puts it there; — He does not allow the poorest, the lowest of his human children the thoughtless indifference of brutes.—
And there was the beautiful tropical sky above, starry, soft, and velvet-deep, —the placid waters all around, and at my side the man who is to speak no more in public, but whose words in private have still the old thrill, the old power to shake the heart and bring the good thoughts uppermost. I put my hand in his, and we descended the companionway together and left the foolish sailors to their play.
But now, on the after-deck, the captain, much entreated, and in no wise unwilling, takes down his violin, and with pleasant touch gives us the dear old airs, “ Home, Sweet Home,” “ Annie Laurie,” and so on, and we accompany him with voices toned down by the quiet of the scene around. He plays, too, with a musing look, the merry tune to which his little daughter dances, in the English dancing-school, hundreds of leagues away. Good-night, at last, and make the most of it. Coolness and quiet on the water to-night, and heat and mosquitoes, howling of dogs and chattering of negroes tomorrow night, in Havana.
The next morning allowed us to accomplish our transit to the desired land of Havana. We pass the custom-house, where an official in a cage, with eyes of most oily sweetness, and tongue, no doubt, to match, pockets our gold, and imparts in return a governmental permission to inhabit the Island of Cuba for the space of one calendar month. We go trailing through the market, where we buy peeled oranges, and through the streets, where we eat them, seen and recognized afar as Yankees by our hats, bonnets, and other features. We stop at the Café Dominica, and refresh with coffee and buttered rolls, for we have still a drive of three miles to accomplish before breakfast. All the hotels in Havana are full, and more than full, Woolcut, of the Cerro, three miles from the gates, is the only landlord who will take us in : so he seizes us fairly by the neck, bundles us into an omnibus, swears that his hotel is but two miles distant, smiles archly when we find the two miles long, brings us where he wants to have us, the Spaniards in the omnibus puffing and staring at the ladies all the way. Finally, we arrive at his hotel, glad to be somewhere, but hot, tired, hungry, and not in raptures with our first experience of tropical life.
It must be confessed that our long-tried energies fall somewhat flat on the quiet of Woolcut’s. We look round, and behold one long room with marble floor, with two large doors, not windows, opening in front upon the piazza and (he street, and other openings into a large court behind, surrounded by small, dark bedrooms. The large room is furnished with two dilapidated cane sofas, a few chairs, a small table, and three or four indifferent prints, which we have ample time to study. For company, we see a stray New York or Philadelphia family, a superannuated Mexican who smiles and bows to everybody, and some dozen of those undistinguishable individuals whom we class together as Yankees, and who, taking the map from Maine to Georgia, might as well come from one place as another, the Southerner being as like the Northerner as a dried pea is to a green pea. The ladies begin to hang their heads, and question a little :-“What are we to do here? and where is the perfectly delightful Havana you told us of? ” Answer :-“ There is nothing whatever to do here, at this hour of the day, but to undress and go to sleep;-the heat will not let you stir, the glare will not let you write or read. Go to bed ; dinner is at four; and after that, we will make an effort to find the Havana of the poetical and Gan Eden people, praying Heaven it may not have its only existence in their brains.”
Still, the pretty ones do not brighten ; they walk up and down, eyeing askance the quiet boarders who look so contented over their children, and worsted-work, and wondering in what part of the world they have taken the precaution to leave their souls. Unpacking is then begun, with rather a flinging of the things about, interspersed with little peppery hints as to discomfort and dulness, and dejected stage-sighs, intended for hearing. But this cannot go on,-the thermometer is at 78º in the shade, — an intense and contagious stillness reigns through the house,—some good genius waves a bunch of poppies near those little fretful faces, for which a frown is rather heavy artillery. The balmy breath of sleep blows off the lightly-traced furrows, and, after a dreamy hour or two, all is bright, smooth, and freshly dressed, as a husband could wish it. The dinner proves not intolerable, and after it we sit on the piazza. A refreshing breeze springs up, and presently the tide of the afternoon drive sets in from the city. The volantes dash by, with silver-studded harnesses, and postilions black and booted ; within sit the pretty Señoritas, in twos and threes. They are attired mostly in muslins, with bare necks and arms; bonnets they know not,-their heads are dressed with flowers, or with jewelled pins. Their faces are whitened, we know, with powder, but in the distance the effect is pleasing. Their dark eyes are vigilant; they know a lover when they see him. But there is no twilight in these parts, and the curtain of the dark falls upon the scene as suddenly as the screen of the theatre, upon the dénouement of the tragedy. Then comes a cup of truly infernal tea, the mastication of a stale roll, with butter, also stale,—then, more sitting on the piazza,—then, retirement, and a wild hunt after mosquitoes,— and so ends the first day at Wool cut’s, on the Cerro.
HAVANA. THE HOTELS.
“ SHALL I not take mine ease in mine inn ? ” Yes, truly, if you can get it, Jack Falstaff; but it is one thing to pay for comfort, and another thing to have it You certainly pay for it, in Havana; for the $3 or $3.50 per diem, which is your simplest hotel-charge there, should, in any civilized part of the world, give you a creditable apartment, clean linen, and all reasonable diet. What it does give, the travelling public may like to learn.
Can Grande has left Woolcut’s. The first dinner did not please him,-the cup of tea, with only bread, exasperated,- and the second breakfast, greasy, peppery, and incongruous, finished his disgust ; so he asked for his bill, packed his trunk, called the hotel detestable, and went.
Now he was right enough in this; the house is detestable; - but as all houses of entertainment throughout the country are about equally so, it is scarcely fair to complain of one. I shall not fear to be more inclusive in my statement, and to affirm that in no part of the world does, one get so little comfort for so much money as on the Island of Cuba. To wit: an early cup of black coffee, oftenest very bad ; bread not to be had without an extra sputtering of Spanish, and darkening of the countenance;—to wit, a breakfast between nine and ten, invariably consisting of fish, rice, beefsteak, fried plantains, salt cod with tomatoes, stewed tripe and onions, indifferent claret, and an after-cup of coffee or green tea;—to wit, a dinner at three or four, of which the inventory varieth not,-to wit, a plate of soup, roast beef, tough turkeys and chickens, tolerable ham, nameless stews, cajota, plantains, salad, sweet potatoes; and for dessert, a spoonful each of West India preserve,-invariably the kind you do not like,—oranges, bananas, and another cup of coffee ;—to wit, tea of the sort already described ;—to wit, attendance and non-attendance of negro and half-breed waiters, who mostly speak no English, and neither know nor care what you want;-to wit, a room whose windows, reaching from floor to ceiling, inclose no glass, and are defended from the public by iran rails, and from the outer air, at desire, by clumsy wooden shutters, which are closed only when it rains ;—to wit, a bed with a mosquito-netting;—to wit, a towel and a pint of water, for all ablutions. This is the sum of your comforts as to quantity ; but as to their quality, experience alone can enlighten you.
Taking pity on my exile at the Cerro, Can Grande and his party invite me to Come and spend a day at their hotel, of higher reputation, and situated in the centre of things. I go;—the breakfast, to my surprise, is just like Woolcut’s ; the dinner idem, but rather harder to get; preserves for tea, and two towels daily, instead of one, seem to constitute the chief advantages of this establishment. Domestic linens, too, are fairer than elsewhere ; but when you have got your ideas of cleanliness down to the Cuban standard, a shade or two either way makes no material difference.
Can Grande comes and goes; for stay in the hotel, behind those prison-gratings, he cannot. He goes to the market and comes back, goes to the Jesuit College and comes back, goes to the banker’s and gets money. In his encounters with the sun he is like a prize-fighter coming up to time. Every round finds him weaker and weaker, still his pluck is first-rate, and he goes at it again. It is not until three, P. M., that he wrings out his dripping pocket-handkerchief, slouches his hat over his brows, and gives in as deadbeat.
They of the lovely sex, meanwhile, undergo, with what patience they may, an Oriental imprisonment. In the public street they must on no account set foot. The Creole and Spanish women are born and bred to this, and the hardiest American or English woman will scarcely venture out a second time without the severe escort of husband or brother. These relatives are, accordingly, in great demand. In the thrifty North, man is considered an incumbrance from breakfast to dinner,—and the sooner he is fed and got out of the way in the morning, the better the work of the household goes on. If the master of the house return at an unseasonable hour, he is held to an excuse, and must prove a headache, or other suitable indisposition. In Havana, on the contrary, the American woman suddenly becomes very fond of her husband :—“ he must not leave her at home alone ; where does he go ? she will go with him; when will he come back ? remember, now, she will expect him.” The secret of all this is, that she cannot go out without him. The other angel of deliverance is the volante, with its tireless horses and calesero, who seems fitted and screwed to the saddle, which he never leaves. He does not even turn his head for orders, His senses are in the back of his head, or wherever his mistress pleases. "José, calle de la muralla, esquina á los oficios,"-and the black machine moves on, without look, word, or sign of intelligence. In New York, your Irish coachman grins approval of your order ; and even an English flunkey may touch his hat and say, “ Yes, Mum.” But in the Cuban negro of service, dumbness is the complement of darkness;—you speak, and the patient right hand pulls the strap that leads the off horse, while the other gathers up the reins of the nigh, and the horses, their tails tightly braided and deprived of all movement, seem as mechanical as the driver. Happy are the ladies at the hotel who have a perpetual volante at their service! for they dress in their best clothes three times a day, and do not soil them by contact with the dusty street. They drive before breakfast, and shop before dinner, and after dinner go to flirt their fans and refresh their robes on the Paseo, where the fashions drive. At twilight, they stop at friendly doors and pay visits, or at the entrance of the café, where ices are brought out to them. At eight o'clock they go to the Plaza, and hear the band play, sitting in the volante; and at ten they come home, without fatigue, having all day taken excellent care of number one, beyond which their arithmetic does not extend. “ I and my volante” is like Cardinal Wolsey’s "Ego et Rex meus.”
As for those who have no volantes, modesty becomes them, and quietness of dress and demeanor. They get a little walk before breakfast, and stay at home all day, or ride in an omnibus, which is perhaps worse ;—they pay a visit now and then in a hired carriage, the bargain being made with difficulty;—they look a good deal through the bars of the windows, and remember the free North, and would, perhaps, envy the volante—commanding women, did not dreadful Moses forbid.
One alleviation of the tedium of hotel-life in the city is the almost daily visit of the young man from the dry-goods' shop, who brings samples of lawns, misses’ linen dresses, piña handkerchiefs, and fans of all prices, from two to seventy-five dollars. The ladies cluster like bees around these flowery goods, and, after some hours of bargaining, disputing, and purchasing, the vendor pockets the golden honey, and marches off. As dressmakers in Havana are scarce, dear, and bad, our fair friends at the hotel make up these dresses mostly themselves, and astonish their little world every day by appearing in new attire. “ How extravagant! ” you say. They reply, “ Oh ! it cost nothing for the making; I made it myself.” But we remember to have heard somewhere that “ Time is Money.” At four in the afternoon, a negress visits in turn every bedroom, sweeps out the mosquitoes from the curtains with a feather-brush, and lets down the mosquito-net, which she tucks in around the bed. After this, do not meddle with your bed until it is time to get into it; then put the light away, open the net cautiously, enter with a dexterous swing, and close up immediately, leaving no smallest opening to help them after. In this mosquito-net you live, move, and have your being until morning; and should you venture to pull it aside, even for an hour, you will appall your friends, next morning, with a face which suggests the early stages of small-pox, or the spotted fever.
The valuable information I have now communicated is the sum of what I learned in that one day at Mrs. Almy’s; and though our party speedily removed thither, I doubt whether I shall be able to add to it anything of importance.
HAVANA. YOUR BANKER. OUR CONSUL. THE FRIENDLY CUP OF TEA.
ONE is apt to arrive in Havana with a heart elated by the prospect of such kindnesses and hospitalities as are poetically supposed to be the perquisite of travellers. You count over your letters as so many treasures ; you regard the unknown houses you pass as places of deposit for the new acquaintances and delightful friendships which await you. In England, say you, each of these letters would represent a pleasant family-mansion thrown open to your view,—a social breakfast,—a dinner of London wits,— a box at the opera,— or the visit of a lord, whose perfect carriage and livery astonish the quiet street in which you lodge, and whose good taste and good manners should, one thinks, prove contagious, at once soothing and shaming the fretful Yankee conceit. But your Cuban letters, like fairy money, soon turn to withered leaves in your possession, and, having delivered two or three of them, you employ the others more advantageously, as shaving-paper, or for the lighting of cigars, or any other useful purpose.
Your banker, of course, stands first upon the list,—and to him accordingly, with a beaming countenance, you present yourself. For him you have a special letter of recommendation, and, however others may fail, you consider him as sure as the trump of the deal at whist. But why, alas, should people, who have gone through the necessary disappointments of life, prepare for themselves others, which may be avoided ? Listen and learn. At the first visit, your banker is tolerably glad to see you,—he discounts your modest letter of credit, and pockets his two and a half per cent. with the best grace imaginable. If he wishes to be very civil, he offers you a seat, offers you a cigar, and mumbles in an indistinct tone that he will be happy to serve you in any way. You call again and again, keeping yourself before his favorable remembrance,—always the same seat, the same cigar, the same desire to serve you, carefully repressed, and prevented from breaking out into any overt demonstration of good-will. At last, emboldened by the brilliant accounts of former tourists and the successes of your friends, you suggest that you would like to see a plantation, -you only ask for one,— would he give you a letter, etc., etc. ? He assumes an abstracted air, wonders if he knows anybody who has a plantation,— the fact being that he scarcely knows any one who has not one. Finally, he will try,—call again, and he will let you know. You call again,— “Next week,” he says. You call after that interval,—“ Next week,” again, is all you get. Now, if you are a thoroughbred man, you can afford to quarrel with your banker; so you say, “Next week, —why not next year?”-make a very decided snatch at your hat, and wish him a very long “good-morning.” But if you are a snob, and afraid, you take his neglect quietly enough, and will boast, when you go home, of his polite attentions to yourself and family, when on the Island of Cuba.
Our Consul is the next post in the weary journey of your hopes, and to him, with such assurance as you have left, you now betake yourself. Touching him personally I have nothing to say. I will only remark, in general, that the traveller who can find, in any part of the world, an American Consul not disabled from all service by ill-health, want of means, ignorance of foreign languages, or unpleasant relations with the representatives of foreign powers,—that traveller, we say, should go in search of the sea-serpent, and the passage of the North Pole, for he has proved himself able to find what, to every one but him, is undiscoverable.
But who, setting these aside, is to show you any attention ? Who will lift you from the wayside, and set you upon his own horse, or in his own volante, pouring oil and wine upon your wounded feelings ? Ah ! the breed of the good Samaritan is never allowed to become extinct in this: world, where so much is left for it to do.
A kind and hospitable American family, long resident in Havana, takes us up at last. They call upon us, and we lift up our heads a little; they take us out in their carriage, and we step in with a little familiar flounce, intended to show that we are used to such things; finally, they invite us to a friendly cup of tea,— all the hotel knows it,—we have tarried at home in the shade long enough. Now, people have begun to find us out,—we are going out to tea !
How pleasant the tea-table was! how good the tea ! how more than good the bread-and-butter and plum-cake ! how quaint the house of Spanish construction, all open to the air, adorned with flowers like a temple, fresh and fragrant, and with no weary upholstery to sit heavy on the sight! how genial and prolonged the talk ! how reluctant the separation !— imagine it, ye who sing the songs of home in a strange land. And ye who cannot imagine, forego the pleasure, for I shall tell you no more about it. I will not, I, give names, to make good-natured people regret the hospitality they have afforded. If they have entertained unawares angels and correspondents of the press, (I use the two terms as synonymous,) they shall not be made aware of it by the sacrifice of their domestic privacy. All celebrated people do this, and that we do it not answers for our obscurity.
The cup of tea proves the precursor of many kind services and pleasant hours. Our new friends assist us to a deal of sight-seeing, and introduce us to cathedral, college, and garden. We walk out with them at sunrise and at sunset, and sit under the stately trees, and think it almost strange to be at home with people of our own race and our own way of thinking, so far from the home-surroundings. For the gardens, they may chiefly be described as triumphs of Nature over Art,—our New England horticulture being, on the contrary, the triumph of Art over Nature, after a hard-fought battle. Here, the avenues of palm and cocoa are magnificent, and the flowers new to us, and very brilliant. But pruning and weeding out are hard tasks for Creole natures, with only negroes to help them. There is for the most part a great overgrowth and overrunning of the least desirable elements, a general air of slovenliness and unthrift; in all artificial arrangements decay seems imminent, and the want of idea in the laying out of grounds is a striking feature. In Italian villas, the feeling of the Beautiful, which has produced a race of artists, is everywhere manifest,— everywhere are beautiful forms and picturesque effects. Even the ruins of Rome seem to be held together by this fine bond. No stone dares to drop, no arch to moulder, but with an exquisite and touching grace. And the weeds, oh ! the weeds that hung their little pennon on the Coliseum, how graciously do they float, as if they said,— “Breathe softly, lest this crumbling vision of the Past go down before the rude touch of the modern world! ” And so, one treads lightly, and speaks in hushed accents; lest, in the brilliant Southern noon, one should wake the sleeping heart of Rome to the agony of her slow extinction.
But what is all this ? We are dreaming of Rome,—and this is Cuba, where the spirit of Art has never been, and where it could not pass without sweeping out from houses, churches, gardens, and brains, such trash as has rarely been seen and endured elsewhere. They show us, for example, some mutilated statues in the ruins of what is called the Bishop’s Garden. Why, the elements did a righteous work, when they effaced the outlines of these coarse and trivial shapes, unworthy even the poor marble on which they were imposed. Turning from these, however, we find lovely things enough to rebuke this savage mood of criticism. The palm-trees are unapproachable in beauty,— they stand in rows like Ionic columns, straight, strong, and regular, with their plumed capitals. They talk solemnly of the Pyramids and the Desert, whose legends have been whispered to them by the winds that cross the ocean, freighted with the thoughts of God. Then, these huge white lilies, deep as goblets, which one drinks fragrance from, and never exhausts,-these thousand unknown jewels of the tropic. Here is a large tank, whose waters are covered with the leaves and flowers of beautiful aquatic plants, whose Latin names are of no possible .consequence to anybody. Here, in the very heart of the garden, is a rustic lodge, curtained with trailing vines. Birds in cages are hung about it, and a sweet voice, singing within, tells us that the lodge is the cage of a more costly bird. We stop to listen, and the branches of the trees seem to droop more closely about us, the twilight lays its cool, soft touch upon our heated foreheads, and we whisper,-“ Peace to his soul!” as we leave the precincts of the Bishop’s Garden.