Narrative of an Official Visit to Guatemala from Mexico/Chapter 26
The fields through which we passed were highly cultivated; the country was a mixture of rich plains and luxuriant forests, and having come to the verge of one of the latter, we found ourselves on the brink of a wide river. We could perceive the marks of cattle-feet on its edge, but could hardly venture to guess if it were only a watering place or the river's ford; for we had descended to it down a deep gully or ravine, and, on each side, the high banks were overgrown with lofty trees and a thick profusion of dwarf shrubs. We had no choice left us but to spend the night here, without bed or victuals, or to attempt the pass. Accordingly, we waded carefully across for about thirty yards, when the river became more and more shallow, and at last ended in a small straggling island: we had, from this spot, the mortification to discover that the passage across to the opposite bank was three times as wide as that which we had encountered, and that the water was dark and without ripple, a fearful prognostic of its depth: farther up, there was an appearance of shallows, and, beyond, on the opposite side was an opening which might be the place of landing: we traversed slowly up the river, seldom finding it shallower than up to our saddle girths, and came upon a sand-bank: the view from this spot gave us a still more unfavourable opinion of the depth of the water: it was evidently the main bed which we had yet to pass; and, being both of the same opinion, we immediately returned.
In so doing, we were directed by the bearing of certain large trees which we had purposely noticed on the banks we had just left; but the night was closing rapidly in, and by the time we had re-landed in the gully, it had become so dark, owing to the deep shade with which the spot was surrounded, that we could scarcely distinguish any path at all. My young friend, whom I now began to rally for his bad conductorship, dismounted, and groped about amongst the underwood: at length he came up to me and said he had found the route: he prevailed on me to accompany him back again to the side of the river where we had entered it, and turning his mule shortly round to the right, clambered up a steep bank, and, after a few paces, we again found ourselves in the forest, in a mule track, which, from all appearances, had been occasionally used as such, and that too at no distant period, as the prints of the animal's feet might still be distinguished in the path.
After half an hour's quick riding through sombre glens and upon a rich green turf, we espied a light, and came into a small Indian settlement. We here hired two conductors, who preceded us with flambeaux, made of pine tree, which gave a glaring light: descending from the village, we came, in the course of a quarter of an hour, to the ford which we had been seeking: it was very fortunate that we did not venture through the river at the other spot, for it was excessively deep, and the landing was impracticable, owing to the abruptness of the banks and the thick underwood with which they were hemmed in. Had we ventured, we should probably have been all drowned, man and horse. The point at which we passed the Chimalapañ was quite deep enough, for the waters were very high, owing to the recent rains, and the sand-bank on which we had alighted would probably in a few more wet evenings be no longer distinguishable from the rest of the river.
When we landed on the other side, the road was so narrow, owing to the excessive vegetation, that we could scarcely pass, one by one, and the peons had a difficulty in removing the branches to prevent them from striking out their lights. About a quarter of a mile on this side of the shore was another small Indian settlement, where we stopped whilst our conductors provided themselves with fresh flambeaux: considering the hazardous situations in which we had been, our present travelling gave us feelings of the most perfect comfort and security, and we continued on, at the same tranquil pace, till we reached the place of our destination, the village of Chimalapañ.
In the middle of the town was a shed, open on all sides, with the addition of a considerable aperture in the roof: as it rained a good deal during the night, this circumstance was one of much inconvenience, for there was hardly room to stow our beds and all our baggage out of the wet. I had here the pleasure of receiving a letter from Doña Maria, by the hands of one of the trusty servants of the family; his name was Murillo: he was partly of African origin, and had been born and bred in the house: his occupation had been to take charge of the cargoes of native productions raised on the family estates and to receive the money for them in the capital, or bring back European goods in exchange, which he afterwards took to the wholesale dealers in the different provinces. On the latter occasions, he was frequently entrusted with large sums, and I could not but the more highly appreciate the kindness of his employers, who had now sent him to accompany me not only to the coast, but, if I found it requisite, to England. The fellow, who had performed the journey with great speed, having come the thirty-five leagues in two days on foot, was a good manly specimen of the caste between the Indian and the Negro. He was strong, healthy and athletic; and, hearing so good a character of him from Don Eugenio, his young master, I gladly availed myself of his services, especially as the Chinese was about to leave us at the port: Murillo was aware that he was to accompany us thither, but had no idea, on leaving his home, that he was likely to be required to embark. I accordingly said to him, "Murillo, I will take you with me to England;" to which he replied immediately with a smile of delight,—"Si, Señor, me voy"—Yes, Sir, I go. We made no stipulations about wages, and clothing was not worth naming; for he was not encumbered with any except some cotton drawers and a pair of sandals.
I was sorry to find that Doña Maria's grief and anxiety at her brother's departure were not less in reality than they appeared to be; for that the late excitement had caused her delicate frame to sink under it, and obliged her to keep to her bed ever since our departure. I now remembered some stories I had heard of the violence of the affections of this young lady. When the old Spaniards, a few years ago, found it necessary for their safety to fly the country, her father had proceeded, for that purpose, as far as the coast; but, having caught the fever there, he was brought back to the capital in litters, and, after an illness of fifteen days, died. During the whole of this sickness, which had terminated in a sort of typhus, the incessant watchings of this amiable girl could not be prevented: — she nursed her dying parent with devoted attention, and, in her phrensy, clung so closely to the corpse, that it was with difficulty she could be separated from it. As was natural to expect, she caught the infection, but fortunately got over the attack.
The next morning, we set off for Zacapa, which I found in the list of my route was honoured with the title of city: it lies seven leagues from Chimilapañ, and being situated about half way between the coast and the capital, may be considered, with regard to Guatemala, what Xalapa is to Mexico.
Previously to entering this city, we had to undergo the operation of unloading all our mules and conveying the baggage in a punt over the rapid river which continued still to cross our route. The place was an ordinary ferry, and the boatmen used poles to convey us over, whilst the mules and horses were made to swim across: in our boat, which, might be about fifteen feet long, other passengers had accommodated themselves, amongst whom were four women, who, when we had arrived on the opposite side, went about twenty yards from us and bathed themselves: they were very expert swimmers, and endeavoured to duck each other; playing all sorts of pranks in the water, evidently with a view to attract our approbation as to their agility and prowess. My companions and attendants took no more notice of them than if they had been so many ducks splashing in the water, but to me the sight was as curious as it was novel, and conducted with great decency, considering the habits of the country.
We put up at the house of the Alcalde, having reached the town at four o'clock in the evening: whilst supper was preparing, we strolled about: the population with its vicinities, amounts to 8,000 souls: provisions and the necessaries of life are very cheap: every man has his horse: there are two churches with one curate and a coadjutor: the place is beautifully situated, and about thirty-four leagues from Izabal. The Alcalde, who was a man of some information, had, it appears, been accustomed to converse a good deal, of late, with foreigners: he was a hearty jovial companion, and his ideas of liberality were as generalized as could possibly be wished for by the most indiscriminate advocates for moral emancipation: he told me that Messrs. Wright and Pistock of Belize, had, about a year since, made a plan of the road from Izabal to Guatemala.
The next morning, before we started, I went with Don Eugenio to call upon a young Spaniard who was on his way to the capital from the coast, in order that we might send letters by him to Eugenio's family, informing them of the arrival of their despatches by our new servant. In the house at which we called, the three daughters of the family were all up, at six o'clock in the morning, sitting on a dresser, making papelillos or paper cigars.