[letter xxxvi][p. 388]
San Antonio de los Bagnos, April 23.
ABROAD on an adventure in foreign lands, my dear heart, and for the moment not of the most agreeable kind; I am here, all alone, in a little Spanish posada or fonda (a third-rate public house), as uncomfortable as possible, surrounded by people who do not understand me, and whom I do not understand either. I am here awaiting the arrival of a volante from Signora C., which is to take me to her plantation, about five English miles from this place. Possibly, however, she may not yet have received the letter which announced my arrival here, and the volante, in that case, may not come for a day or two, and I, in the mean time, shall have to stop here; but I am neither uneasy nor in want of food, for my little traveling fairy is with me, and keeps me in capital humor, and has enabled me to fall in with a little Spanish Don on the rail-way, who could speak a little French, and who was delighted to be of service to me. With his help, and my Spanish phrase-book and dictionary, I manage very well. And besides, I have sent off a letter of introduction, which I had with me, to Don Ildephonso Miranda, who lives not far from here, "in su Caffetal en Alguizar," and I expect to see him in the course of the day, and with his assistance I shall be able to get out of my fonda, for he speaks French like a native, I am told, and is, besides, a caballero perfetto.
I am now writing to you in a little room with bare whitewashed walls and earthen floor, the only furniture of which is one wooden chair and a wooden table, and with the wind blowing with all its might in through the window. But here it is the warm wind of Cuba, and one can not be angry with it.
My journey this morning by the rail-way was glorious, like another morning journey which I made some weeks [p. 389] since, and the palms and splendid flowers of the caffetals shone out the whole length of the way. The whole of this side of the island is celebrated for the beauty of its coffee plantations, the most splendid days of which are now over, as they are not able to produce coffee in the same quantity and of the same excellent quality as the more southern plantations of the island, and are, in consequence, somewhat on the decline. San Antonio de los Bagnos is a small city or town, celebrated for its baths, and for the beautiful mountain scenery of its neighborhood. Plantations lie scattered among these hills, where the heat is never extreme, where the sea-breezes continually blow, and the grass is green the year round; airy habitations are these, with splendid views over the vast sea. San Antonio is further celebrated for a subterranean river, which I shall go out and endeavor to discover for myself. I have dismissed the guide whom my friend Don Manuel obtained for me, saying that he was a coquin, and who appeared to me to be such in so high a degree, that I considered him quite capable of pitching me down into the subterranean river which I was going to see. I excited myself, therefore, on the plea of el vento. It blows so into my room that I can not write any more. The paper is in a perpetual flutter.
Caffetal la Concordia, April 27th.
I have had, since I last wrote, various small uneasinesses and misadventures, but all of which turned out for the best, and I now write to you from Madame C.'s beautiful coffee plantation, where I am staying amid the most delightful tranquillity and cheerfulness of her lovely family.
I spent the day quite alone at San Antonio in my little posada. My room, however, although naked and bare of furniture, was clean, and Raimund, the servant of the house, was very respectful and kind, and began by degrees, out of pure good-will, I believe, to understand me, and if I had not been left alone in this posada for a time; [p. 390] and if these little adverse circumstances had not occurred, I should not have made acquaintance with San Antonio de los Bagnos, as I have now done, and that would have been a great pity.
When I had dined on some excellent boiled beef and yams, and the day began to grow cool, I set out on a solitary ramble, having long since become hardened against the wondering glances of the screaming and skipping negro children, who always follow me at first when I go out alone.
Some palm-thatched huts, standing in a plantation-grove at a little distance from the posada, attracted me, because I presumed them to be the dwellings of negroes; and I was not deceived in this respect. I soon found myself wandering in a small irregular town, through streets of birch-bark and brushwood cottages, surrounded with little gardens, and the beautiful trees and vegetation of the country. Cocoa-palms and bananas grow on all hands, and on all hands might be seen, beneath them, stark-naked negro children leaping and playing about; negro women were at work, or were standing at the doors of the cottages. I found myself evidently in an African region.
"Bon jour, Madame," sounded toward me from one of the huts, and, turning round, I beheld a stout and well-dressed negro woman standing at her door, who looked like a personified invitation. I accepted it, glad to have an opportunity of talking with some of the people; and on entering the cottage, which was spacious, I found her one of the very nicest, kindest, most cheerful old negro women that one can imagine. Every thing also in and about the cottage was clean and orderly, bed-room, kitchen, and garden, and the old woman took me to see everything, laughing with all her might at every question which I asked or observation which I made. She was born in St. Domingo, and had been servant in a [p. 391] French family there before the revolution on the island. She expressed herself very imperfectly in French, but nevertheless gave me a deal of information regarding the condition of the negroes in the little town. They seemed to be happy and contented; supported themselves on their small allotments of land and by their animals, as well as by doing work of various kinds for the people of the city. She herself took in washing, and was well contented with her world. At the present moment she was enjoying a dolce far niente, and so also was her husband, who could not speak any other language than Spanish, and therefore did not take part in our conversation, but sat and smoked his cigar with an expression of the most cordial good-nature and contentment. When I saw some banana-trees in the garden (which was not remarkably well kept), I asked her whether she ate bananas at breakfast. This inquiry seemed to be inconceivably entertaining, and, almost choking with laughter, she said she must have roasted meat and coffee at breakfast, but that her husband ate roasted bananas.
Wishing that happy old couple a long life in their cottage, I went on my way, and every step increased my delight at the irregular, but poetical and picturesque scene which San Antonio de los Bagnos presented to my view.
Imagine ruins of old, lofty walls and porticoes covered with fresco-paintings, among small white or gayly tinted Cuban houses and small palm-thatched negro huts, all standing in picturesque confusion; a deep but narrow river, as clear as crystal, its banks overgrown with shadowy trees, among which stand negro huts, with their palm-leaf roofs, and over these, bending down from the sloping banks, bananas and bamboo-trees, and all around bushes covered with red and yellow flowers; in the river imagine boys bathing and gamboling about, and old stone and wooden bridges spanning it, with their pointed pillars and buttresses; and majorals riding over the bridges [p. 392] with pistols at their saddle-bows, and swords with silver hilts by their sides; and here and there, upon the verdant banks of the river, or beneath cocoa and bamboo trees, in gardens, or beside the old porticoes and the ruined walls, groups of olive-complexioned or white women, for the most part young and handsome, some smoking cigarettes, others with white flowers in their hair, commonly acknowledging the salutation of the passer-by with graceful inclinations of the head, and a melodious "Buono tarde, Signora!" and here and there groups of lightly-clad people, jolly negro men and women, and stark-naked negro children, carrying themselves like regular little savages; white men sitting on the stone walls, or wandering slowly along, smoking cigars; and over all this that mild tropical sky, that delicious air, a soft but joyous light--at slumberous, joy-giving, far niente life --and you see an outline of the panorama which I contemplated wandering hither and thither, until the shades of evening advanced, and stars came forth on the scene.
Again in my fonda, I prepared myself for the night. I had a neat little bed with clean sheets and a light coverlet. I obtained a cup of weak tea, some bread, and a night-lamp, my friend Raimund devoting himself to me with the utmost respect and gravity. I was now alone; and the sound of a guitar, accompanied by a tremulous, monotonous, but pleasingly melancholy song, similar in character to the Spanish seguidilla, reached me, and to the sound of this I fell asleep on my cool sacking bed, and passed an excellent night, undisturbed by the bloodthirsty robbers that I feared--gnats and fleas.
When I woke next morning, I saw the respectful face of my friend Raimund at my low window, come to inquire if I wished for any thing. I wished for coffee and an egg; and while I was thus breakfasting, La Miranda was announced in such a manner as showed that he was regarded asa power of the first rank.[p. 393]
And before long, I was prepared to receive Don Ildephonso Miranda, which I did in a room adjoining mine, and of the same unpretending character.
Don Ildephonso Miranda whistled to the people of the posada,[1*] and they flew forward to receive his commands; he motioned with his hands, and they flew to all distances to fulfill them.
As for myself, La Miranda was really en caballero perfetto, infinitely polite in tone and manner; he allowed me the use of his volante and his calashero to convey me to Madame C.'s; breakfasted with me; arranged every thing as I wished; and when I was about to set off, and inquired for my bill at the posada, it was already paid by La Miranda! It would have been no use protesting against it, neither would it have been becoming; I treated it, therefore, as unimportant, and thanked him, with a compliment on the politeness of the Spaniards. This politeness is really great toward ladies and foreigners, and must be founded on a certain national pride, which, at the bottom, is noble and beautiful.
I drove to the residence of Madame C., the Caffetal la Concordia, in Don Ildephonso's volante and in a tropical hot wind, which raised all the red dust on the road in a whirlwind; and in that flying career, and through the cloud of red dust, I could merely see, in passing, the beautiful palms and the brilliant flowers of the caffetals, gleaming above the stone walls which bounded either side of the way.
Madame C. was not at home on her plantation; she was away at the sea, on the southern side of the island, for the sake of bathing, together with her sons and grandchildren; and it was not until this morning that she would [p. 394] be able to receive mine and her son's letters. But the steward on the plantation, Don Felix, a polite, elderly gentleman, received me with Spanish courtesy, and said,
"Toute la maison est à votre disposition! Vous êtes chez vous. Desposez de tout. La maison est à vous. Ce n'est pas un compliment !"
We dined together, the polite old gentleman and myself. Don Felix spoke of Madame C. with an expression of worship.
"Oh, c'est une dame, une dame, comme il y en a peu!"
Trinidad, a kind negro woman with lovely eyes, and who speaks a little French, is my femme de chambre, and I slept that night at this place. The next morning brought a letter from Madame C., inviting me to join her at the sea-coast, arranging all for my coming, and appointing as my companion the very dearest of all handsome and graceful boys, Adolpho S., twelve years old, Madame C.'s eldest grandson.
We set off. It was an arduous journey in the commencement, through a perfect wilderness, over stocks and stones; then in a boat, drawn by men along a narrow stream, almost choked up with reeds and different kinds of water-plants. It was horribly wearisome and horribly hot. My little dark-eyed cabellero, the sweet lad, encouraged and comforted me: "It will soon be better," said he; "we have got over the worst now! We shall very soon come into more open water!" The amiable little fellow was really a refreshment to me on this part of the journey, which occupied three mortal hours; the water, after that, expanded into a little river, and we felt the breezes from the sea. At the outlet of the little river into the sea a few small birch-bark huts, regular fishers' huts, stood upon the bare turf; here dwelt the aristocratic family, and lived a kind of field-life for some weeks for the sake of the bathing.
Madame C. had just now returned from the bath. How [p. 395] handsome and charming she appeared as she advanced toward me in her long white costume, with her mild, pale countenance, her noble bearing, her beautiful manner. She seemed to be between fifty and sixty, and the most refined womanly grace was impressed on face and form. Around the beautiful lady stood two young, tall, handsome men, her two youngest sons, Alfred and Sidney S., and a handsome Spanish lady, the wife of the eldest, and their six children, four boys and two girls, all handsome; and in the outskirts of this beautiful group, negro men, and women, and dogs.
A cottage on the other side of the little river, and opposite that of Madame C.'s, is prepared for me. I shall be there quite alone, and the excellent lady has made it as comfortable as it can be, with a bed, a chair, and a table. The wind blows straight through its walls of brushwood, on the side facing the sea, but then it is the wind of Cuba. There are no trees in the immediate neighborhood--nothing but swampy, low meadow, and beyond that the great sea, which extends, unbroken by rocks, into limitless distance. We are here on the southern side of the island, in a desolate region, inhabited alone by poor fishermen, for whom Madame C.'s residence among them makes the red-letter days of the year. The whole has the charm of novelty, and may do for a few days. I am almost sorry that I have come here, because I fear that I have caused a deal of inconvenience to the sea-bathing family. They are, however, too polite to wish me to perceive it, and I have determined to be contented with every thing; and that is not difficult in this air. We fared sumptuously at a small table on the piazza of Madame C.'s palm-hut, and afterward sat talking by star-light in the mild sea-wind, as I have not talked for a long time on interesting periods in history--in Swedish history among the rest, for this intellectual lady and her well-educated sons are perfectly acquainted with its main features.[p. 396]
It was near midnight when, with the aid of a faithful old servant, I reached the other side of the river by means of a crazy old bridge; it blew strongly from the sea, and the waves roared very much. The Southern Cross, with its glory of Centaur's stars, and the magnificent star in the ship Argo, Canopus, stood bright above the sea in the southern heavens; I greeted them, and crept into my hut. The light was blown out; but the stars peeped in through the opening of the window which faced the sea. The curtain of the bed fanned and fluttered about in the wind; but it was the wind of Cuba. I lay down in my bed with it whistling round me, and though I did not sleep much, yet still enjoyed an unspeakable pleasure, as if borne upward by the wings of the wind, and by the fresh, gentle spirit of the sea. I did not seem to be conscious of my physical being; I felt, as it were, changed into spirit.
The next morning the scene presented a serious aspect. The heaven was clear; but the night-wind had driven the sea inland, and still continued to blow with the same force; the river swelled, and overflowed its banks and the land round our huts; one pool of water was brought into communication with another, and the pools all ran together into small lakes. It was no longer possible to walk from one hut to another; we paddled about like ducks in the water. The family began to be alarmed.
"If the wind continues in this direction, we shall be surrounded with water in the morning!"
The wind did blow from that quarter. It was now impossible to pass from one hut to another, excepting with boats; the water had risen as high as Madame C.'s piazza. We could no longer go out.
"Ce n'est pas vivre ici."
And they came to the hasty resolution of leaving La Pláya, and returning every one of them to La Concordia next morning. The eldest son and all the children were [p. 397] ill. The remainder of the family and I sat and talked together cheerfully enough in the evening till half past ten, when I, in storm and darkness, partly splashing, and partly leaping through water, reached my cottage, where, with the storm roaring round me, and amid showers of rain, I still passed a very good night.
The next morning the camp broke up, and we returned to the cafetal by the same narrow brook which we had before traversed to reach La Pláya. In the crowded space, the heat and inconvenience of all kinds, I felt a sort of silent despair in being obliged to increase the general discomfort, though by only one individual additional presence; and I was at the same time filled with admiration of the amiable old lady, who, though herself very unwell, yet endeavored to shelter under her parasol as many of the young ones as she could from the heat, and to save my legs by theirs. The youngest Bambino screamed the whole half of the way. At length, wearied out, and in a very deplorable condition, we reached the caffetal.
But we recovered ourselves; and in the evening we sat out on the beautiful piazza, and saw the brilliant cuculios floating through the air, and listened to Spanish seguidillas, which Alfredo S., who is romantically handsome, sang to the guitar with a beautiful voice, and the utmost feeling and expression, so that it did one's soul good to hear him. How different is the same song when sung with or without soul! These Spanish seguidillas, the peculiar national songs of Spain, have also its peculiar national spirit, which breathes from them with indescribable freshness and nature. One recognizes in them the inspiration of a youthful primeval life. They have this in common with our popular songs, however different they may be from them in temperament and character. Our melodies are deeper and richer, but there is more sunshine in theirs, and a more joyous and a warmer life.[p. 398]
La Concordia, May 1st.
Again I bless God that he enables me in Madame C., the proprietor of this plantation, to be acquainted with and to love one of those beautiful maternal women, who are a blessing in all the countries of the world, and who are able, at least for a moment, to remove even from slavery its oppressive fetters, and to allow the slaves to forget them.
This was very soon evident to me from the apparent joy of the negro people in her return to the plantation, and from the beaming countenances which met her, and replied to her joyous, cordial salutation; and each passing day only makes this the more clear, as I silently observe the motherly spirit which induces her to visit the sick among the slaves herself, to send them the food, or allow them the little indulgence which they have wished for; as I have seen how, daily, on the piazza, her chair is surrounded by dozens of little negro children, who sit or creep at her feet, leap and play with one another around her, touching her white dress, coming and complaining to her just as familiarly as if they were her own children seen the mutually joyful greetings between her and the negroes, both men and women, whom we meet in our walks; heard it also continually in her unpremeditated expressions, felt it in her heart, in the charm of the atmosphere which surrounds her beloved presence.
This evening, when she and I were returning in the twilight from a ramble in one of the woods of the plantation, we met a negro woman.
"Oh, Francisca, Francisca!" exclaimed Madame C., cordially, and inquired from her in Spanish how she was, &c.
Francisca replied, with a beaming expression, that she was well, was happy, and hoped soon to present sua mercê with a beautiful little negrito. She expected soon to become a mother. Mistress and servant could not have [p. 399] conversed more cordially in our own free country. The young anticipating mother was evidently certain that her child would, in the handsome white lady, meet with a motherly protector.
A little negro lad, who was one day playing with her youngest grandson, rushed up to her in a state of great excitement, complaining, "He calls me a negro without shame!" (un negre sans honte).
"Don't play any longer with him!" said Madame C., gravely. "Don't play with him now," continued she, addressing the other negro boys around them. And the handsome little Edwardo received a reproof, and was left alone and with downcast looks for some time.
I often admire the patience with which she allows herself to be surrounded and followed by the active little troop of black children, who kick up a cloud of dust on the roads around her white figure. I confess that I could not endure it as she does; but I shall often in memory hear her gentle voice say, as she frequently does, when I turn the conversation to this subject,
"These poor creatures, whose lot is so hard, who labor for us, and have so little prospect of freedom and happiness, ought we not to alleviate their fate, and sweeten their lives by all means in our power? I can not bear to see any thing suffer--not even an animal. It is a consolation to me to know that my negroes are fond of me. I am fond of them, and I have always found them devoted, and anxious to do all that I wish them to do. They are by no means difficult to manage when they once see that people really wish them well, and desire to be reasonable and just toward them.
"I never allow any flogging to take place on this plantation without my express permission. The majorals are rude, uneducated men, and often will strike a negro in passion and from ill humor. This ought not to be allowed. When a negro is guilty of any offense which deserves [p. 400] punishment, I am informed, and I determine the punishment. If the whip is to be used, it must be used without passion, and only when admonition and reprimand have proved themselves unavailing. My negroes are attached to me because they know that I will never allow them to be ill used."
"It is not, then, true," said I, triumphantly, "what I have been told of the ingratitude of the negroes, and that in the slave disturbances in 1846 the kindest masters were those who were first murdered by their slaves?"
"Ah, no!" returned Madame C., "such conduct is not in accordance with human nature! It happened at that very time that I was quite alone among my negroes, and they it was who watched over my safety. My son was obliged to go to his plantation on the southern side of the island, where just then the tumult was in full force. The majoral was absent for a time. I summoned my contra-majorals, who were all negroes, and thus addressed them:
"'You know what is going forward at this time not far from this place--that the negroes have arisen, and that they murder and plunder their owners?'
"Yes, they knew of it.
"'Very well,' said I; 'I now place myself and my family under your protection. My son must leave me, and remain away for two or three weeks. There will not be a white man on the plantation; neither will I send for any. I depend upon you, and will confide myself to you. I shall consider you responsible for the behavior of the negroes. If you observe any disorder among them, let me be informed of it.'
"They promised me accordingly.
"I at that time, as now, and indeed ever since my husband's death, slept very badly, and often lay awake great part of the night. One night, therefore, being sleepless, I rose between two and three in the morning, and looked through the window, when I saw, to my astonishment, [p. 401] one of my majorals armed and walking sentry before my house. I called to him, and asked him if any thing were amiss.
"'No; all is tranquil,' replied he; 'but we fear, I and my comrades, that some of the negroes from ------ might come here and disturb your grace, and therefore we determined to keep watch over your house in turn every night, so that your grace might be able to sleep quietly.'
'I thanked him for this proof of devotion, and inquired how the negroes were behaving, and whether they worked as usual.
"'Better than usual,' was the reply; 'they know that la Signora confides in them, and they wish to prove that they deserve her confidence. Your grace will be always safe.'"
After these proofs of the fidelity and worth of the negro character, the noble lady can not do other than suffer from the cruelty and the injustice which she sees practiced by so many of the slave-owners toward their slaves.
"Often," said she, on one occasion, "have I, in the bitterness which this has occasioned, wished that they all could be free!"
I often observe in her a shudder, as of anguish, and hear a sigh when the whip is heard to crack, which is the signal for the slaves to go to work; for here even she has not the power of having this abominable signal changed. Another more musical sound is heard daily, about eleven o'clock in the forenoon, when a long, melodious, far-resounding blast is blown on a shell, the summons from labor of such negro women as have infants at the breast, to go and suckle them, and rest before doing so.
So universally known is the kind disposition of Madame C. toward her negro slaves, that she is often besought by strange negroes who have displeased their masters to become their intercessors, and have them spared from punishment. It is not an unusual thing in Cuba for the [p. 402] offending slave to choose from among the white people a Padrimo or a Madrina to intercede for them with their exasperated owner, who seldom or never refuses pardon which is thus asked. Madame C. has often been requested to become Madrina, and never in vain. Who, indeed, could refuse that noble, charming woman any thing which she might ask for? Wherever her white, beautiful form appears (she always is dressed in white), she seems to be a messenger of peace.
Madame C. was born in San Domingo, of French parents, who fled thither from France during the Reign of Terror. During the bloody tumults of San Domingo, she and her family were saved by the devoted zeal of faithful slaves. During the beautiful evenings of my stay in the house of this excellent woman, and which we spend on the piazza, or in quietly wandering in the palm-groves of the plantation, she has related to me many episodes from the romantic history of herself and her relatives; and she has no idea how much I am captivated by those traits of an unusually gifted and profoundly intelligent soul, which presented themselves the while, without herself understanding their beauty and their unusual character. We often converse, and her son Sidney with us, on more general topics, especially connected with history, and compare remarkable characters and incidents from the histories of different countries, and I do not make any bad figure in this way, with my Swedish men and women. We talk, we think, we paint together; we are very merry together; and I can not help grieving beforehand in having so soon to leave this place. Here I could live without suffering from what I see most nearly surrounding me, and here I could become so attached, and here I could draw and paint so much.
Madame C. draws and paints flowers, butterflies, and all natural objects remarkably well, because she maintains the utmost fidelity to nature, and draws with intelligence; [p. 403] during her misfortunes (she lost her husband, Marqués C., and her youngest son by cholera, and suffered greatly in property by the late hurricanes), she lost her inclination for these cheerful occupations; but the delight I have in natural objects, and my fever for drawing, have revived it in her, and if I could remain here some months, we should make together a beautiful album of the flowers and fruits of Cuba, and it would be very agreeable, if greater and dearer vocations did not prevent me!
Many kinds of trees are blossoming now that the rainy season is at hand. Cuculios come out in great numbers, and constitute here as at L'Industrie, my amusement and my torment. Madame C. can not, she declares, say sufficient about the splendor and the luxuriance of the vegetation during the rainy season, nor of the pomp and gorgeous coloring of the clouds. She would willingly tempt me to remain and see all this--with her!
We are now alone here, she, her youngest son, the young, giant-like Sidney S., and three of the second son's children, namely, my little Cabellero Adolpho; a most charming, pretty, and gracious little girl, Michaelita, the image of her grandmother; and a little boy, Edwardo, a living counterpart of Corregio's Amor. Madame C. reads with the children in the forenoon, while I draw and write in my own room. The afternoons and evenings we spend together. No one can live more agreeably than I do here, but the phrensy of drawing continues, and leaves me no peace. I am drawing Madame C.'s portrait, that I may carry home with me her gentle countenance, her beautiful, intelligent eyes, which so faithfully mirror her soul. I am taking a portrait of the poetically-beautiful head of Sidney S. for his mother. I am drawing a group of their sweet children, and while I paint them I am enchanted by the witchery of their countenances, the beauty of their eyes. I am drawing the trees, and flowers, and fruit, and birds which surround me, and I am continually in a state [p. 404] of half desperation that I can get so little done in the short time that I have to remain here. This Caffetal is the most beautiful and the best kept of any which I have yet seen. The whole of this district is full of coffee plantations, and in the time of their prosperity every one of these is said to have been a little paradise of beauty and luxury; their proprietors emulating each other in magnificence of life and lavish expenditure. Signor C., the husband of my beautiful friend, was one of the most distinguished planters for affluence, magnificent liberality, and beneficence. He was one day dining with a neighbor; the hour of his return arrived, and his volante, drawn by three magnificent horses, drove up to the house; the guests, on this, rose to the windows to see the horses of Signor C., which were celebrated for their beauty.
"Ah! how happy I should be if I were possessed of such horses," exclaimed one lady, as the splendid creatures advanced to the door at full trot.
"Madame! ils sont à vous," said the polite Spaniard. Terrified at the consequence of her thoughtless exclamation, the lady wished to refuse. It was of no use. Signor C. ordered the horses to be immediately taken out of the carriage, and, borrowing a pair from his friend, returned home. There was nothing for it but that the lady must retain the valuable gift. Such was the luxury and such the spirit which prevailed in the flourishing times of this coffee plantation. The depreciation of coffee as an article of commerce, and two hurricanes in succession, have changed the state of things in this part of the island. In the last which occurred, in the year 1848, the house of Madame C. was leveled to the ground, and books and pictures, which have since been dug out, were drenched and destroyed by salt water, which during the hurricane was driven upon the island. It is said that the ground is still sick from this dreadful tempest, and that the trees and plants have not yet recovered their former vigor. Many [p. 405] large trees, and among these a magnificent ceiba, lie still in the pasture meadows, prostrate on the ground. In the garden, however, all is again in the most beautiful luxuriance, and the lovely aviary contains a number of rare birds. The house, which was rebuilt by Sidney S. for his mother, by the help of the negroes alone, is one of the most lovely which I have seen in Cuba; so dexterous are negroes as handicraftsmen. The greater number of artisans in Cuba are negroes, and, as such, they gain so much that they can easily purchase their own freedom.
When at sunset I walk with Madame C., quietly conversing in some of the many alleys of the coffee plantation, I can not help stopping again and again, enraptured by the beauty and grace both in the form and movement of the young palm-trees which grow there. There is an incomparable grace about the branches of the cocoa-palm in its youth. Regularity and ease, precision and freedom, majesty and gentleness, reveal themselves here in living symbols. There is also among the beautiful features of this place a gigantic berceau, or lofty arcade of bamboo, called in Spanish cagna brava, which forms the termination of a magnificent guadarajah of king-palms. When I behold the setting sun through this light green temple arch, and see the delicate branches of bamboo forming lofty Gothic arcades--the grace of which is indescribable--against the pale red and golden clouds of the western heaven, I feel, with a mixture of melancholy and joy, that the creative artist must here drop his pen and pencil, and say, discouraged like Carlo Congo in the dance, "No! it is of no use!" No, it is not of any use to lift the hands to imitate, only to worship; but it is of use to see these fashionings of the greatest artist, to learn from them to worship, and that the mind, and art itself, may be ennobled and inspired by them!
I rise early in the mornings to draw, and to see from my window two large bushes of hybiscus, with their fiery [p. 406] red flowers, surrounded by a vast multitude of smaragdus-green humming-birds. There are also in the large plane-trees, which grow just by, a great many birds which are very amusing to me. Foremost of these are two long-legged, long-necked, pale red flamingoes, which were taken when young on the sea-shore, and which are now perfectly tame. They somewhat resemble swans in form, but have considerably longer and thinner legs, longer and thinner necks. They have small heads, and large, crooked bills, and make a noise like ducks, only much louder, and which becomes particularly audible when they do not receive their food at the accustomed time; and if they happen to see Madame C., they come walking after her screeching out their grievances, as if very anxious to complain to her of having been neglected. Their contempt for the hens and geese is indescribable, and the very important airs which they assume as they climb up and look down upon them, as if amazed at their presuming to come into their way, are really splendid. The hens, in the mean time, scuttle away from before them, as if humiliated by their transcendant greatness and by a conscious inferiority; but the fat and ponderous geese, who resemble city dames beside Austrian Archduchesses, avenge themselves sometimes by stretching out their necks after them, and uttering a derisive cackle, which the high-bred flamingoes do not think it worth their while to notice. Such are nature's democracy. The poor, high-bred flamingoes are, however, now nearly parched up with thirst; there is, it is true, a stone basin for them here which ought to contain water, but the continued drought has left it very nearly dry. Here, nevertheless, the flamingo pair take their morning bath with great ceremony, and when they perceive a little water on their wings, they go out upon the grass, and with great pomp and solemnity spread out their huge wings to dry in the wind and the ascending sun. After that they take a doze [p. 407] standing on one leg under a casuarina-tree, With long, outstretched branches, and turn their long necks in snake-like curves over their backs. It is most amusing to see them.
Here, as every where else in the world, people are never satisfied with the weather which God sends them. As people often in our country long for rain, so are they longing for it now in Cuba. And the hot air and the red dust causes the longing for rain here to be something burning and tormenting. I have said a great deal about the deliciousness of the air and the beauty of the vegetation of Cuba, and I have enjoyed both extremely; yet even here, in the midst of all this magnificence, I feel as if I had a sort of foreboding of what home-sickness must be. There are moments when I do not dare to think of our cool summer nights, and the white, soft mists which arise in the evening, and lie like white veils over the meadows below the house at Aersta, those mists beneath which the oxen lie so comfortably chewing their ends and reposing! I know that if I should be ill here, I should, like the poor little Laplander, Tantas Potas, when he was dying in Italy, desire amid all the tropical magnificence that which I could not obtain--"a little snow to lay upon my head!"
May 3d. A shower! a shower! and the flamingoes have water to bathe in, and have had a great bathing, and the geese cackle, and vegetation shines out, and the animal creation raises its head. Now the coffee-shrubs will set their beans, and the Palma Christi[2*] will stretch forth its green hands vigorously to the winds. The papaya-tree shakes the rain-drops from its crown, and cucuios come in swarms.
To-morrow, Sunday, the negroes will have a dance beneath the great almond-tree in front of the bohea. It will [p. 408] be my last day at La Concordia. The day after to-morrow I shall go to Havana, accompanied by Sidney S.
While I have it fresh in my memory, I must tell you a circumstance which has lately occurred not far from here, and which proves that, according to the treatment which he receives, the negro slave becomes either good or bad.
A French planter at Cuba, M. Chapeaud, went to Europe a few months since, and before his departure left the care of his plantation and his negro slaves to a majoral in whom he had confidence. He, however, was a stern and brutal-tempered man, who treated the slaves with severity and violence, and before a month had elapsed the whole working population of the plantation was in a state of complete tumult, and the life of the majoral was in danger. Madame Chapeaud--a lady whom I should like to be acquainted with--seeing this state of things, determined to dismiss the majoral and take upon herself his duties. Screened by an umbrella from the heat of the sun's rays, she herself went out with the negroes upon the sugar-cane fields, watched them at their work, attended them home, and looked after their food and their comfort, treating them all according to justice and reason. From this moment the most perfect order and obedience prevailed on the plantation. The slaves worked willingly, and were anxious to evince their devotion to the estimable lady, who continued to exercise the duty of a majoral on the plantation until a man was found capable of governing the plantation according to her views.
My last evening at La Concordia. Cuculios are shining beside me in the glass, and I could write by their light. I write, however, by one made by human hands, because the light, although not so beautiful, is yet stronger. It is my last evening at La Concordia. I have become acquainted with much that is beautiful in nature and in man at this place, for which I shall be eternally [p. 409] thankful. One thought makes me especially happy. I came hither unknown, even by literary reputation--because it is very seldom that European books reach Cuba--without any other recommendation than that of being a stranger from a far-distant land--the land of Gustavus Adolphus and Queen Christina--and, after a residence of little more than a week, I am become as a sister and a friend of the family. This relationship, which has renewed itself for me in various homes of Cuba, has given me the happy feeling of kindredship of soul, which, whenever it makes itself availing, becomes a much stronger bond of union than any mere outward ones. I have seldom ever felt myself more at home in a stranger's house than I have done in this. Madame C. is one of those persons to whom I could become cordially attached, and with whom I could live happily in daily and quiet communion. I could right earnestly quarrel with her son on certain subjects; but I should, nevertheless, become attached to him, and interested in him, as in a young giant character, richly gifted by nature, and capable of being kindled by great and noble thoughts. These sweet children, too--yes, I am fairly in love with them, especially with the youngest little amor, Edwardo. One can not imagine to one's self more beautiful or more graceful children! It is a grief to me to part from them all.
Flowers and fruits too, which are now beginning to come forth in yet greater abundance! I have here become acquainted with many which were hitherto unknown to me. These islands of the Southern Sea, favorites of the sun, abound in rich fruits and spices. None of the many savory dishes at Madame C.'s table have pleased me more than the favorite dish of the negro slaves, foufou, a kind of pulpy but very savory pudding, which is made of mashed bananas or plantains, and eaten with a sauce of tomatoes or other vegetables. It is a remarkably good and wholesome dish, which we have had many [p. 410] times at breakfast since I expressed my great liking for it; and next to our potatoes, which in Cuba are a rarity, I know no vegetable root so excellent, so savory and delicate at the same time, as that noble root yuca, which is eaten like potatoes with fresh butter, and which flourishes as well upon the poor land of the negroes as in the rich planters' well-manured caffetals. So good a mother is Nature, so good a Father is the Creator of Nature, that the most palatable and the most wholesome food of the earth is, in all countries, the most accessible to all. What have we in our country which for a continuance tastes so good and is so wholesome as potatoes and herring, milk and bread, and rye-meal hasty-pudding? "Even their excellences," I remember your saying, on one occasion, "may very well conclude with hasty-pudding!"--and water, clear, pure spring water, the first, best of all beverages of Nature, is the one which is given freely to all!
I must now say a few words about the last negro dance which I shall witness in Cuba.
It was in the afternoon of this day, under a large, shadowy almond-tree in front of the bohea, which here is not one of those castellated walls, with gates, and bolts, and bars, but a building lying open, and which reminds me of the large barns in our own country. It seems as if the coffee plantations were distinguished from sugar plantations by the style of the bohea.
The dance was altogether similar in character to the dances which I have already described. The negroes stood in a ring and sang, monotonously and inharmoniously, but with measured cadence, the words and the tune which a young negro gave out. In the centre of the ring two or three dancing couples flourished about, leaping and grimacing, the men with much animation, the women sheepishly. The dance was one continuous, monotonous improvisation. A number of little children joined in the [p. 411] ring, and among them stood the good white lady, la dame blanche, as I like to call her, gentle and motherly.
Again I asked and endeavored to ascertain the meaning of the words which were sung to the dance, and again I was told that these words were so insignificant, so completely nothings, that it was not worth while to attend to them. It may be that they frequently are so; but that this is not always the case, I know from many accounts which I have heard, and from many negro songs in the slave states of America. The faculty of the African for improvisation is a distinguishing feature of his life and temperament, and may, as we know, become the utterance of a higher degree of simple beauty in soul and action.
When the celebrated English traveler, Mungo Park, as he himself relates in the account of his travels, had lost his way in the African deserts, and was driven with abhorrence from the village where he had hoped to find a night's lodging, he seated himself under a tree, alone, hungry, wearied, dejected, with no other prospect before him than a miserable death, because a tempest threatened, and wild beasts roared around. Then came toward him in the twilight a woman returning from the field; she saw him, and had compassion upon him; took up the horse's saddle and bridle--for his horse had been stolen--and bade the unhappy traveler follow her.
She led him to her hut, lighted her lamp, spread out a mat upon the floor, and bade him rest upon it through the night. She then brought out a fine fish, which she roasted for him upon the coals, and gave it him for his supper.
During a great part of the night she spun cotton with other women in the hut, and as they spun they sang songs to enliven themselves, one of which was evidently improvised for the occasion. One woman sang it first alone, afterward the others joined in chorus. The air was soft and melancholy; the words were the following:
"The storm raged, and the rain fell; the poor white [p. 412] man, weak and weary, sat beneath our tree. He has no mother to carry milk to him--no wife to grind his corn!
Chorus. "Have pity on the white man who has no mother," &c.
If the women of Africa, in America and the West Indies, sing less beautiful songs, it is no fault of theirs ; if their improvisation is fettered like their bodies and souls, it is the fault of the white man.
It is his duty to emancipate them; to let them, by means of the sun of Christian love and education, shoot up like a palm-tree, like a bamboo-arcade from the sun-warmed earth; and then the people of the tropics, with their songs and dances, may one day correspond with the mild and beautiful scenery of the tropics. And that, too, is like the continued improvisation of a varied, luxuriant summer-life, which, amid its eternal blossoming, might make man almost forget that death is come into the world.
Later in this beautiful evening--one of the most beautiful which I have spent at La Concordia, for the atmosphere was refreshed by the rain, and the full moon ascended beautifully above the white dwelling-house--we sat out of doors, and saw the cuculios fluttering about in the air, and the fire shining out from the negroes' bohea. This people can not live without fire, even in the midst of the greatest heat, and they like to kindle it on the floor in the middle of their room; they contrive to make their beds--a wooden frame, with or without straw--by means of leafy branches and rags, as much like dens as possible, and in these they are fond of lying all in a heap.
Still later, I played with those sweet children on the piazza at "lend me your fire-stick," which is here changed into "tu me da la candela," which was a novelty to the children, and made them crazy with joy.
I shall set off early in the morning for Havana, whence, on the 8th of May, I proceed to Charleston by the "Isabel."
The dance under the almond-tree, and the beautiful [p. 413] white lady there, like a mother among the black children, is a picture which I am glad to bear away with me.
But I bear away with me thence the memory of the words which the estimable Don Felix uttered one evening, and which in his mouth could not be questioned: "Ah, c'est un malheur que d'être esclave!"
That beautiful white lady can not, after all, protect the poor black slave!
Havana, May 7th.
Religion is not altogether dead in Cuba; it still exists there in some beautiful, charitable institutions for the benefit of orphan children and the unfortunate sick. It still exists there --more vital than in the United States of America in one respect, namely, that it acknowledges as worthy of its care the black as well as the white, and equally so as regards its hospital and benevolent institutions. I have seen this to-day, and have heard the same from the amiable Creole Alfredo S., with whom I visited the large infirmary of St. Lazare, of which he is Intendente. This great institution is appropriated to the unfortunates who are afflicted with the incurable diseases peculiar to the tropics, and in particular to the African race, leprosy, elephantiasis, in which the legs and feet swell to an unnatural size, and la maladie de St. Antoine, in which the hands and feet are contracted, and without apparent cause or sore, waste away to nothing. These unfortunates are here provided for in the most beautiful manner. The extensive building--built like an immense bohea around a square court, and with a grated door--is situated by the sea, which bathes with its roaring waves the rocky walls at its feet, and surrounds the home of the sick with its breezes, fraught with life and health. There were in the court beautiful shrubberies of oleanders, now in full bloom, and the beautiful pink flowers of which filled the air with a delicious fragrance. These beautiful shrubberies were the work of the young Intendant. Each unfortunate, [p. 414] whether black or white, who is afflicted with any one of these incurable maladies, has here his own separate convenient abode. Among those whom I visited was an old negro, who from his very youth had been afflicted with la maladie de St. Antoine. His hands were now merely finger-ends, and his feet knobs, upon which, nevertheless, he managed to move about by help of sticks, and contrived even with his poor finger-ends to perform his little household duties. His dwelling consisted of one little sitting-room, ditto chamber, a little kitchen, and a little garden besides, in which he cultivated bananas and various roots; every thing was small, but comfortable and neat. He looked good and contented. The other sick persons had all similar dwellings: nothing was wanting which might in any way alleviate their slowly-dying life. Christian love labored here for the most suffering of the children of men. The hopeless might here live for the most beautiful hope.
Another noble institution of mercy at Havana is La Casa de Beneficenza. This receives many hundreds of motherless children. Here they are educated, and each one, on leaving the establishment, receives a dower of five hundred pesos with which to commence his own career in life.
From l'Infirmede de St. Lazare, Mr. S. conducted me to the great cemetery, Campo Santo. It is a large structure of white marble, in the lofty walls of which, within an immense sort of castle-court, each family has its little niche or ledge, that is to say, if the family is able to pay for it. Each such little niche was furnished with an inscription in gilt letters. The width and height of the walls made these grave-niches appear very small, but each is nevertheless capable of holding many coffins.
I had in the hospital beheld the spirit of Christianity; in the Campo Santo I again found that of heathenism. The bodies of the rich were interred in those lofty walls with [p. 415] their gilded inscriptions; those of the poor were buried in the earth without any token of memorial, without even a green sod over them, or a flower or shrub to speak of life above the grave; and there was one large quarter of the Campo Santo where the spectator beheld heaped-up mounds and walls of bones and skulls. This was the burial-place of the negro slave. It is forbidden to bury a negro here in a coffin; the bodies are therefore thrown either wholly or half naked into the ground, and lime, or some other kind of earth, which quickly consumes the flesh, is thrown upon them. In the course of from eight to fourteen days, the bodies are disinterred to make room for other corpses, and the bones are cast up in heaps to dry in the sun.
While we stood here we witnessed the interment of some humble person in the neighborhood of the negroes' quarter. I noticed that they laid cushions, coverlets, and articles of clothing with the dead in the grave.
During these, my last days at Havana, I have visited, in company with my good Mrs. F., several beautiful private gardens, in order to become acquainted with various flowers and fruits; I made the acquaintance, also, of Dr. Philippe Poé, the professor of botany, who has been so polite as to present me with some Cuban butterflies, among which is a specimen of the urania, the most beautiful butterfly of Cuba. It is of a splendid dark green color, and has a gloss as of velvet.
I regret not having earlier become acquainted with the interesting and kind Alfredo S., because I should have gained much knowledge from him in Havana which the shortness of time does not now admit of.
Many things even in Cuba seems to have greatly improved of late years; in particular, as regards police regulations and personal safety, as well in the whole island as in the city. Some years ago--I have been told this by various people--there would frequently be heard, late [p. 416] in the evening, the cry of "Assasino!" in the streets; but no one dared to go to the spot whence the cry proceeded, because the cry was not unfrequently a mere trick of the assassin himself. And if one person saw another lying murdered in the fields, he did not dare to render any assistance, because if the wounded man died, and there were not several witnesses to attest his innocence, he ran the risk of being himself accused of murder, and was sure to become involved in an endless legal prosecution. The present improved state of the public safety is attributed to the keen scrutiny and general reform of Governor Jacon. He was a stern man, whose despotic temper was beneficial to the public, while it made him hated by many private individuals.
Lawsuits and lawyers abound in Cuba, and the histories of the arbitrary power and venality of the law, and even of the judges' bench, as regards private individuals, and the difficulty which there is for any one to obtain justice, if he can not purchase it at a great price, are unprecedented. There requires, however, for the full reformation of all these abuses, a total reorganization, not only in the administration of justice, but in the government of the whole island.
During my rambles in Havana I have always observed the negro population there with great pleasure, because they appear to me freer and happier than in the cities of the United States. Certain it is that one here sees negroes and mulattoes much more frequently engaged in trade than there, and their wives are commonly very well, nay, even splendidly dressed. It is not unusual to see mulatto women, with flowers in their hair, walking with their families on the principal promenades in a manner which denotes freedom and prosperity. Mulattoes are generally to be found in the tobacco-shops, either as shop-men, or as the proprietors of the place. The black inhabitants emulate the white in cigar-smoking; many ladies [p. 417] of the second and third class are also fond of smoking their cigaritos, and it is asserted that, of the population of Cuba, one third is occupied in the preparation of the cigars, and that the other two thirds smoke them.
Two different styles of physiognomy are very evident among the population of the city. The one has refined features, an oval countenance, a proud and often gloomy expression: this belongs to those of Castilian descent. The second has a round countenance, flat, broad features, a jovial but plebeian expression: this marks the Catalonian. The former is spare in form, the latter stout. The Castilian is generally met with among the government officials, the Catalonian among the tradespeople. The latter form themselves into guilds and corporations, and are not on good terms either with Castilians or Creoles. The Creoles are good people, and seem to inherit from the delicious climate of the island a mild and inoffensive temperament.
I had wished to see in Jamaica the negroes who govern themselves as a Christian community; and though I have not been able to do so, I have obtained a tolerably clear idea of their condition from the elder Mr. F. and two of his acquaintance from that island. It appears that the Christianized negro remains very faithful to his African turn of mind. There have been built for them, in Jamaica, large houses, with convenient rooms, kitchens, and gardens, in which they might possess all the advantages of the domicile and the work-shop, private life and the life of association combined; but in vain! The large, convenient stone house stands empty. The negro likes neither stone nor association. The highest aim of the negro is to be able to purchase his own little plot of ground, a "mountain," as it is called, where he can erect for himself a birch-bark hut thatched with palm-leaves, plant his native trees, and grow sugar-cane, or maize and edible roots. He labors to gain for himself this earthly paradise. When [p. 418] he has obtained it, it is his pleasure to rest and enjoy himself as much as possible, and to labor as little. And why should he labor? That ambition, that lust of knowing and subduing the world, spiritually or physically, with which the Creator has endowed the Caucasian race, does not belong to him. He, on the contrary, is endowed with the power of care-free enjoyment, a gay temperament, and the ability for measured songs and dances. The climate under which he is born is propitious to the latter gifts, and opposed to the former.
Even in trade the negro evinces his bias toward the individuality of his own little world, and his disinclination or inability for association. Instead of one great trading house in sugar and coffee, the negroes open twenty small shops, where each one for himself sells sugar and coffee, without any connection with the rest.
In consequence of this tendency, they do not like to work for the larger planters, and require from such extravagant wages. If they can not obtain as much as they desire, they prefer not working at all. They can do without it; their wants are few, and the beautiful earth feeds them with small labor.
Hence it happens that all the great plantations in Jamaica have declined, and their owners are ruined. The greater number of the large plantations may now be purchased at very low prices. I have heard, nevertheless, of two great planters in Jamaica, the one an Englishman, the other a Spaniard, who have had no cause to complain, and who have always been able to obtain as much negro labor as they required; but I presume they did not require much, and that they were on good terms with the negroes.
And why should not labor be made cheerful to a cheerful people? The negroes themselves seem, by their songs in the sugar-mill at night, to show the way and the means by which they might work well. Let them go out to [p. 419] labor to the sound of music and singing, and perchance their labor may go on like a dance. The Europeans, however, believe generally that no labor can be carried on vigorously without day's wages, or--the whip!
Morning of May 8th. I had my last great view of Cuba from the azotea of Alfredo S.'s house last evening at sunset. For the last time have I seen its beautiful palm-groves, its gay, showy houses, its mild heaven, its bright blue sea. This afternoon I shall go on board the "Isabel," and bid farewell forever to the palms and ceibas of Cuba, to its cuculios and contra-dances, to its guadarajahs and constellations, to the African drums, songs, and dances, to its happy and its unhappy people, to its hell and its paradise!
I have taken leave of my good friends, have sketched the monument of Columbus on La Plaza des Armas, and this morning, for the last time, have I visited my beloved Cortina de Valdez, and seen the breakers dash around the rocks of the Moro. On my return, I called at a restaurateur's to purchase des libros de dulces, which I wished to give to the little girls. When, however, I was about to pay, I received back my money from the young man who stood behind the counter, with a polite "it costs nothing, Signora." I fancied I had misunderstood him, or that he had misunderstood me; I therefore again offered him the money, but received the same remark in return. I then recollected the Spanish and Cuban gallantry, and, looking round the shop, I observed Mr. S. at some distance, near the door, and now it was quite clear to me.
"Ah, this is one of your Spanish tricks!" said I to him. He smiled, but evidently did not wish to be thanked.
One day I by chance admired a little basket which his wife held in her hand, and immediately I was obliged to accept it. All my protests were in vain; I really became afraid of admiring any thing.
I must now bid adieu to the kind F.'s and S.'s and then conclude some letters.[p. 420]
The next time I write it will be from the United States. I have inhaled new life in Cuba; but I could not live there. I could only live where a life of freedom exists and grows.
[1*] Whistling to people of the servant-class is customary in Cuba, and they make use of it also among themselves. The sound is, however, rather a hissing than a whistling sound, like a sharp "H!" and is audible at a considerable distance.
[2*] So called from the form of its leaves; the plant from which the castor-oil is extracted. Latterly, this plant has been much cultivated in Cuba and the southern states of America.
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