A Trip to Cuba


I DO not mean to give portraits of the individuals at our hotel. My chance acquaintance with them confers on me no right to appropriate their several characteristics for my own convenience and the diversion of the public. I will give only such general sketches as one may make of a public body at a respectful distance, marking no features that fix or offend.

Our company is almost entirely composed of two classes,—invalids and men of business, with or without their families. The former are easily recognizable by their sad eyes and pallid countenances; even the hectic of disease does not deceive you,—it has no affinity to the rose of health. There is the cough, too, —the cruel cough that would not be left at the North, that breaks out through all the smothering by day, and shakes the weak frame with uneasy rocking by night.

The men of business are apt to name their firm, when they introduce themselves to you.

“My name is Norval, Sir,—Norval, Grampian, & Company. I suppose you know the firm.”

We do not, indeed; but we murmur, in return, that we have an uncle or a cousin in business, who may, very likely, know it.

“What is your uncle’s firm?” will be the next question.

“Philpots Brothers.”

“Excellent people,—we have often done business with them. Happy to make your acquaintance, Sir.”

And so, the first preliminaries being established, and each party assured of the other’s solvency, we glide easily into a relation of chat and kind little mutualities which causes the periods of contact to pass smoothly enough.

We found among these some manly, straight-forward fellows, to whom one would confide one’s fortunes, or even one’s widow and orphans, with small fear of any flaw in their trustworthiness. Nor was the more slippery class, we judged, without its representatives; but of this we had only hints, not experience. There were various day-boarders, who frequented only our table, and lodged elsewhere. A few of these were decorous Spaniards, who did not stare, nor talk, nor gobble their meals with unbecoming vivacity of appetite. They were obviously staid business-men, differing widely in character from the street Spaniard, whom I have already copiously described. Some were Germans, thinned by the climate, and sharpened up to the true Yankee point of competition; very little smack of Fatherland was left about them,—no song, no sentimentality, not much quivering of the heart-strings at remembering the old folks at home, whom some of them have not seen in twenty years, and never will see again. To be sure, in such a hard life as theirs, with no social surroundings, and grim death meeting them at every corner, there is nothing for it but to be as hard and tough as one’s circumstances. But give me rather the German heart in the little old German village, with the small earnings and spendings, the narrow sphere of life and experience, and the great vintage of geniality which is laid up from youth to age, and handed down with the old wine from father to son. I don’t like your cosmopolitan German any better than I do your Englishman done to death with travel. I prize the homeflavor in all the races that are capable of home. There are very many Germans scattered throughout Cuba, in various departments of business. They are generally successful, and make very good Yankees, in the technical acceptation of the word. Their original soundness of constitution enables them to resist the climate better than Americans, and though they lose flesh and color, they rarely give that evidence of a disordered liver which foreign residents in tropical countries are so apt to show.

The ladies at the hotel were all our own countrywomen, as we see them at home and abroad. I have already spoken of their diligence in sewing, and of their enthusiasm in shopping. Their other distinctive features are too familiar to us to require illustration. Yet upon one trait I will adventure. A group of them sat peaceably together, one day, when a file of newspapers arrived, with full details of a horrible Washington scandal, and the murder consequent upon it. Now I must say that no swarm of bees ever settled upon a bed of roses more eagerly than our fair sisters pounced upon the carrion of that foul and dreadful tale. It flew from hand to hand and from mouth to mouth, as if it had been glad tidings of great joy,—and the universal judgment upon it caused our heart to shudder with the remembrance, that it had heard some one somewhere propose that female offenders should be tried by a jury of their own sex.

It was a real comfort, a few days later, to hear this sad subject discussed by a circle of intelligent Englishwomen, with good sense and good feeling, and with true appreciation of the twofold crime, the domestic treason and the public assassination. In passing, I must say of this English circle, that it is charming, and that the Britannic Consul has the key of it in his pocket. Wherefore, if any of you, my friends, would desire to know four of the most charming women in Havana, he is to lay hold upon Mr. Consul Crawford, and compel him to be his friend.

Mr, Dana recounts his shopping in Havana, whereof the beginning and ending were one dress, white and blue, which he commendably purchased for his wife. But does Dana know what he had to be thankful for, in getting off with one dress? Tell him, ye patient husbands, whose pockets seem to be made like lemons, only to be squeezed! Tell him, ye insatiate ones, who have new wants and new ideas every day! Dana’s dress was, probably, an holan batista, which he calls “Bolan”; —it was, in other words, a figured linen cambric. But you have bought those cambrics by the piece, and also piñas, thin, gossamer fabrics, of all degrees of color and beauty, sometimes with pattern flounces,—do you hear? And you have bought Spanish table-cloths with red or blue edges, with bull-fights on them, and balloon-ascensions, and platoons of soldiery in review, and with bull-fighting and ballooning napkins to match. And you have secured such bales of transparent white muslins, that one would think you intended to furnish a whole troupe of ballet-girls with saucer petticoats. Catalan lace you have got, to trim curtains, sheets, pillow-cases, and kitchentowels with. And as for your fans, we only hope that the stories you tell about them are true, and that Kitty, Julia, and Jemima at home are to divide them with you; for we shrewdly suspect that you mean, after all, to keep them, and to have a fan for every day in the year. Let a man reflect upon all this, added to the inevitable three dollars and fifty cents per diem, with the frequent refreshment of volantes and ices at the Dominica, and then say whether it pays to take a partner not of a frugal mind to Havana for the season.

I had intended to give some account of the servants at Mrs. Almy’s; but my gossip runs to such lengths that I must dismiss them with a few words, Ramon, the porter, never leaves the vestibule; he watches there all day, takes his meals there, plays cards there in the evening with his fellow-servants, and at night spreads his cot there, and lies down to sleep. He is white, as are most of the others. If I have occasion to go into the kitchen at night, I find a cot there also, with no bed, and a twisted sheet upon it, which, I am told, is the chrysalis of the cook. Said cook is a free yellow, from Nassau, who has wrought in this kitchen for many years past. Heat, hard work, and they say drink, have altogether brought him to a bad pass. His legs are frightfully swollen, and in a few days he leaves, unable to continue his function. Somebody asks after his wife. “She has got a white husband now,” he tells us, with a dejected air. She might have waited a little,—he is to die soon.

Garcia is the kind waiter with the rather expressive face, who is never weary of bringing us the rice and fried plantain, which form, after all, the staple of our existence in Cuba. The waiters all do as well as they can, considering the length of the table, and the extremely short staple of the boarders’ patience. As a general rule, they understand good English better than bad Spanish; but comparative philology has obviously been neglected among them.

Luis is a negro boy of twelve, fearfully black in the face and white in the eye; his wool cropped to entire bareness. He is chiefly good at dodging your orders,— disappears when anything is asked for, but does not return with it.

Rosalia is the chambermaid, of whom I have already spoken, as dexterous in sweeping the mosquitos from the nets,— her afternoon service. She brings, too, the morning cup of coffee, and always says, “Good morning, Sir; you want coffee?”—the only English she can speak. Her voice and smile are particularly sweet, her person tall and well-formed, and her face comely and modest. She is not altogether black,—about mahogany color. I mention her modesty, because, so far as I saw, the good-looking ones among the black women have an air of assumption, and almost of impudence,—probably the result of flattery.

With all this array of very respectable “help,” our hostess avers that she has not a single person about her whom she can trust. Hence the weary look about her eyes and brow, speaking of a load never laid down. She attends to every detail of business herself, and is at work over her books long after her boarders have retired to rest.

But the one of all the servants who interests us most is Alexander, Mrs. Almy’s own slave. He is, like Rosalia, of mahogany color, with a broad forehead and intelligent eyes. His proud, impatient nature is little suited to his position, and every day brings some new account of his petulant outbreaks. To-day he quarrelled with the new cook, and drew a knife upon him. Mrs. Almy threatens continually to sell him, and at this the hearts of some of us grow very sick,—for she always says that his spirit must be broken, that only the severest punishment will break it, and that she cannot endure to send him to receive that punishment. What that mysterious ordeal may be, we dare not question,—we who cannot help him from it; we can only wish that he might draw that knife across his own throat before he undergoes It. He is trying to buy his own freedom, and has something saved towards it. He looks as if he would do good service, with sufficient training. As it is, he probably knows no law, save the two conflicting ones, of necessity and his own wild passions. One of the sad thoughts we shall carry away from here will be, that Alexander is to be sold and his spirit broken. Good Mrs. Almy, do have a little patience with him! Enlighten his dark mind; let Christianity be taught him, which will show him, even in his slave’s estate, that he can conquer his fellow-servant better than by drawing a knife upon him. Set him free? Ah! that is past praying for; but, as he has the right to buy himself, give him every chance of doing so, and we, your petitioners, will pray for him, and for you, who need it, with that heavy brow of care.

I have called the negroes of Nassau ugly, clumsy, and unserviceable. The Cuban negroes make, so far, a very different impression upon me. One sees among them considerable beauty of form, and their faces are more expressive and better cut than those of the Nassau blacks. The women are well-made, and particularly well-poised, standing perfectly straight from top to toe, with no hitch or swing in their gait. Beauty of feature is not so common among them; still, one meets with it here and there. There is a massive sweep in the bust and arms of the women which is very striking. Even in their faces, there is a certain weight of feature and of darkness, which makes its own impression. The men have less grace of movement, though powerful and athletic in their make. Those who are employed at hard work, within-doors, wear very little clothing, being stripped to the loins. One often has a glimpse of them, in passing the open smithies and wheelwrights’ shops. The greatest defect among the men is the want of calf. The narrow boots of the postilions make this particularly discernible. Such a set of spindleshanks I never saw, not even in Trumbull’s famous Declaration of Independence, in which we have the satisfaction of assuring ourselves that the fathers of our liberty had two legs apiece, and crossed them in concert with the utmost regularity. One might think, at first, that these narrow boots were as uncomfortable to the calesero as the Scottish instrument of torture of that name; but his little swagger when he is down, and his freedom in kicking when he is up, show that he has ample room in them.

Very jolly groups of Spanish artisans does one see in the open shops at noon, gathered around a table. The board is chiefly adorned with earthen jars of an ancient pattern filled with oil and wine, platters of bread and sausage,—and the ever fragrant onion is generally perceptible. The personal qualities of these men are quite unknown to us; but they have an air of good-fellowship which gives pleasure.

We hired a carriage this afternoon,— we and two others from Boston. We had a four-wheeled barouche, with two horses, which costs two dollars an hour; whereas a volante can be hired only at eight dollars and a half per whole afternoon,—no less time, no less money. As it holds but two, or, at the utmost, three, this is paying rather dear for the glory of showing one’s self on the Paseo. The moment we were in the carriage, our coachman nodded to us, and saying, “A la tropa,” galloped off with us in an unknown direction. We soon fell in with a line of other carriages, and concluded that there was something to be seen somewhere, and that we were going to see it. Nor were we mistaken; for in due time, ascending a steep acclivity, we came upon “la tropa,” and found some ten thousand soldiers undergoing review, in their seersucker coats and Panama hats, which, being very like the costume of an easy Wall-Street man in August, had a very peaceful appearance on so military an occasion. The cavalry and infantry had nearly concluded their evolutions when we arrived. The troops were spread out on a vast plateau. The view was magnificent. The coachman pointed to one immovable figure on horseback, and said, “Concha.” We found it was indeed the Captain-General; for as the different bands passed, they all saluted him, and he returned their courtesy. Unluckily, his back was towards us, and so remained until he rode off in an opposite direction. He was mounted on a white horse, and was dressed like the others. He seemed erect and well-made; but his back, after all, was very like any one else’s back. Query,—Did we see Concha, or did we not? When all was over, the coachman carefully descended the hill. He had come hither in haste, wishing to witness the sport himself; but now he drove slowly, and indulged in every sort of roundabout to spin out his time and our money. We met with a friend who, on our complaint, expostulated with him, and said,—“Señor, these gentlemen say that you drive them very slowly (muy poco á poco).” To the which he,—“Señor, if gentlemen will hire a carriage by the hour, and not by the afternoon, they must expect to get on very softly.”—Mem. A white driver is always addressed as Señor, and I have occasionally heard such monologues as the following:—“Señor, why do you drive me this way? Curse you, Señor! You don’t know anything, Señor! You are the greatest ass I ever encountered.” The coachman takes it all coolly enough; the “Señor” spares his dignity, and he keeps his feelings to himself.

The writer of this has already spoken of various disappointments, in the way of seeing things, incidental to the position of the sex in Cuba. She came abroad prepared for microscopic, telescopic, and stereoscopic investigation,—but, hedged in on all sides by custom and convenience, she often observed only four very bare walls and two or three very stupid people. What could she see? Prisons? No. Men, naked and filthy, lying about, using very unedifyrng language, and totally unaccustomed to the presence of lady-visitors. She invoked the memory of Mrs. Fry and the example of Miss Dix. “Oh, they were saints, you know,” “Only because they went to prisons, which you won’t let me do.”—Bull-fight? No. “How could you go back to Boston after seeing a bull-fight, eh?” “As if married life were anything else, eh?” And so on.— Negro ball? “Not exactly the place for a lady.” “Miss Bremer went.” “Very differently behaved woman from you.” “Yes, virtue with a nose, impregnable.”

But there is something she can go to see,—at least, some one,—the angelic man, Don Pepe, the wise, the gentle, the fearless, whom all the good praise. Yes, she shall go to see Don Pepe; and one burning Sunday noon she makes a pilgrimage through the scorching streets, and comes where he may be inquired for, and is shown up a pair of stairs, at the head of which stands the angelic man, mild and bland, with great, dark eyes, and a gracious countenance. He ushers us into a room furnished with nothing but books, and finds two chairs for us and one for himself, not without research.

Now I will not pretend to say that Don Pepe occupied himself with me after the first kind greeting, nor that my presence occasioned him either pleasure or surprise. My companion was a man after his own heart, and, at first sight, the two mounted their humanitarian hobbies, and rode them till they were tired. And when this came, I went away and said nothing. Yet I knew that I had seen a remarkable man.

Don Pepe de la Luz is a Cuban by birth, and his age may number some sixty years. He inherited wealth and its advantages, having received somewhere a first-rate education, to which he copiously added in subsequent years. He is a Liberal in politics and religion, a man of great reason and of great heart. In affairs of state, however, he meddles not, but contents himself with making statesmen. Like all wise philanthropists, he sees the chief source of good to man in education, and devotes his life, and, in a degree, his fortune, to this object. The building in which we found him was a large school, or rather college, founded by himself, and carried on in a great measure through his efforts. This college is upon the same literary footing as the University of Havana; and Don Pepe’s graduates pass examinations and receive diplomas in the last-named institution, He himself rarely leaves its walls; and though he has house and wife elsewhere, and the great world is everywhere open to him, he leads here a more congenial life of ascetic seclusion, study, and simplicity.

“Oh, noble instinct of good men, to stay and
do their duty!
This let us celebrate above all daring, wit,
and beauty.”

Don Pepe has been abroad as much as it profits a man to be,—but has not lost his own soul there, as an American is apt to do. He has known the best men in Europe and America. The best languages, he possesses them; the best books, here they are, piled all about his room. The floor is carpeted with them; there are cases all around the walls; and a large parallelogramic arrangement in the middle of the room, stuck all with books, as a pin-cushion with pins. True, there is not in their arrangement that ornateness of order observable in Northern libraries; dust even lies and blows about; and though he can find his favorites, we should be much puzzled to find any volume where it ought to be. But it looks as if the master were happy and undisturbed here, and as if the housemaid and her hated broom were as far off as the snow and frost.

In person, Don Pepe is not above the middle height. He is a fairly developed man, but looks thin and worn, and his shoulders have the stoop of age, which scholars mostly anticipate. His face is much corrugated, but it bears the traces of vivacious thought and emotion, not the withering print of passion. Of his eyes I have already spoken; they are wise, kind, and full of Southern fire.

Don Pepe has had some annoyances from the government,—probably in the more sanguine period of his life. The experience of years has taught him the secret of living peaceably with all men. He can be great and good himself, without perpetually quarrelling with those who can be neither. He spoke with warm interest of his scholars. “They have much capacity,” he said; “but we want a little more of that air you spoke of just now, Doctor.” That air was Liberty. Reader, have you ever been in a place where her name was contraband? All such places are alike. Here, as in Rome, men who have thoughts disguise them; and painful circumlocution conveys the meaning of friend to friend. For treachery lies hid, like the scorpion, under your pillow, and your most trusted companion will betray your head, to save his own. I am told that this sub-treason reached, in the days of Lopez, an incredible point. After every secret meeting of those affected to the invaders, each conspirator ran to save himself by denouncing all others. One Cuban, of large fortune and small reputation, being implicated in these matters, brought General Concha a list of all his confederates, which Concha burned before his face, unread. Piteous, laughable spectacle! Better be monkeys than such men; yet such work does Absolutism in government and religion make of the noble human creature! God preserve us ever from tyrants, spies, and Jesuits!

Don Pepe does not tell us this; but we have much pleasant talk with him about books, about great men in Europe, and, lastly, about Prescott, whom he knew and honored. We took leave of him with regret. He accompanied us to the head of the stairs, and then said, “Ah! my dear Madam, my liver will not suffer me to go down.” “I am glad it is not your heart,” I rejoined, and we parted,—to meet again, in my thoughts, and perhaps elsewhere, in the dim vista of the future.