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THE ISLAND OF CUBA, AND THE RUN TO VERA CRUZ.
To modern ideas, which favour ventilation even at the cost of a sunstroke, the western suburb may seem preferable to Havana within the walls; but I am so far behind the age as to enjoy narrow shady streets. My quarters were amongst the narrowest and most sheltered, where a small courtyard surrounded by a heavy pile of masonry made the hotel seem like a donjon keep or other baronial messuage. It was solid enough to be cool, yet not large enough to be gloomy, evidently the donjon of a second-rate nobleman, who, unable to make both ends meet, had given place to licensed victualling. We had tiled floors and a feeble attempt at painting on the walls like a washed-out imitation of Pompeii. There was no office with clerk and account-books in American style, nor that elegant waiter in evening coat and
white cravat, common to the hotels of England. From the aforesaid courtyard, entered by a stone archway, a flight of stone steps led to a sparselyfurnished lobby, where you might or might not chance to find some one who would answer your questions. Everything was quiet and dreamy, viewed in the light of ordinary hotel life—a stone gallery, with Venetian blinds, on which the bedrooms of the guests opened; a dignified parrot, who spoke but rarely and then in choice Castilian, as he swung in his cage; and a recess supposed to contain our landlord's batterie de cuisine.
At meal times the lobby blossomed forth with table, chairs, and spotless linen. Attendants appeared upon the scene, and the chairs were occupied by gentlemen bowing gravely to each other as they seated themselves. Then was it that repasts of no mean quality emanated from our landlord's recess, while the parrot, rousing at sound of so many voices, conversed solemnly with all mankind. We were not overawed by the neighbourhood of a grandee who dined alone in his room waited on by a negro, and, before we rose from table, there was such impassioned talk as would have made you think that a fight must follow. Yet it was only the Spanish energy of discussion; no one felt aggrieved with any one else, and our party broke up as formally as it had assembled. The guests retired, the furniture was moved aside, and once more silence reigned.
I wonder whether Havana contains a proper proportion of fat-headed men. If so, they do not give themselves a fair chance, for the city, as a city, stays awake all night. Shops are open and business going forward until ten o'clock at least; after which hour, people continue to drive about in volantes for an indefinite period and to walk past smoking the choicest of cigars. I was preparing for an early start to Matanzas on January 20th, the train going out at halfpast five A.M., and the instinct of not being left behind caused me to keep watch upon the small hours of the morning. At two o'clock there were voices and footsteps in the streets, with carriages every few minutes. At three o'clock there were more footsteps and voices, with just as many carriage-wheels to be heard as there had been at any hour of the previous evening. Policemen, bearing pikes and lanterns, stood whistling mysteriously to each other at the street corners. Havana was wide awake, though individuals might choose to make believe that it was bedtime. When four o'clock came there was a trampling as of labourers going to their work, and at a quarter to five I passed out of the hotel, which was dark and quiet, closed the front gate that I had found half open, and secured a volante without trouble, as though it had been the middle of the afternoon. Have you ever tried to catch the first down train from London, and did your servant search wildly for a cab but found it not? Even at that dull period between Sir Roger de Coverley and the milk
man, or rather what would be between them with us, Havana was stirring.
The railway station was full of passengers for Matanzas and other places who were waiting to buy their tickets. Here I met the young Frenchman who had travelled with me from New Orleans, and we exchanged compliments on being up so early. Each had expected the somewhat barren honour of finding himself alone, but it was better to have company on the trip, and there was a "good all over" feeling in getting away at half-past five with bright starlight showing the feathery tops of palm-trees as we cleared the suburbs of Havana and rumbled out into the open country.
American cars, an American engine, a well-laid track, superior to dozens in America-these were the broad features of our journey. To tell how there were cane-bottomed seats in the first-class, a separate car for persons of colour, and an opposition line running to Matanzas, is to approach details that may weary you, so I will only add that one line was charging half as much as the other, without bringing its rival to an abatement of price, and will leave railway men to explain the phenomenon. We profited by it, paid half and asked no questions. A good rate of speed was maintained, which almost made up for the longer distance of the cheap journey, and when day dawned we were far on our way. The rich vegetation that could now be clearly seen, the palms and bananas, the acres of sugar-cane, and tangled thickets
of many different shrubs gave this Cuban landscape a novelty of appearance which reminded us that we were in the tropics. There were Chinamen at work in some fields and negroes in others, while the two races might often be seen labouring together.
The coolie system and the slave system side by side! Put down your money and take your choice; only be warned as to John Chinaman (de las Filipinas) who has a provoking habit of making away with himself when discontented. A Cuban landowner told me that one of his coolies ran off for "nothing at all," and, on being brought back, deliberately committed suicide. Another coolie was so long missing that they supposed him to be dead, though his body had not been found.
It was very hot, for a winter's morning, when we reached Matanzas. The sun shone brightly upon a broad blue bay where many vessels lay at anchor, upon a white-walled town, and a range of picturesque hills in the background. There were volantes waiting for the railway passengers, and great clumsy carts, drawn each by a pair of oxen, taking sugar hogsheads to the waterside; white men in straw hats, black men in straw hats; dark-eyed ladies peeping into the street through iron-barred windows; negresses and half-castes looking as if this was indeed a climate to suit them, whilst they walked bareheaded in the hot sunshine with ample skirts and gay-coloured shawls.
The snobbishness of disliking to see inferiors smartly