Narrative of an Official Visit to Guatemala from Mexico/Chapter 7
The preparations for my journey to the capital having been made by Don Simon, to his entire satisfaction, and consequently to my own, we left Sonsonate about seven o'clock in the morning of the 14th, and passed through three large villages. That of Naquisalco is situated in a large, arid plain, in the centre of which stands a respectable looking church: the country around was well cultivated with different kinds of grain, with Indian corn and European wheat; for the climate was adapted for both.
By eight o'clock, we had reached Salpotetán, a smaller village than any of the former; and drawing up at one of the Indian huts on the road side, regaled ourselves with a bowl of pure water. I began to think the habits of my new friend, Don Simon, very abstemious. My former companion used to shudder when I put water to my brandy, but this one would not even allow me brandy to my water.
We reached Apaneca about ten o'clock, so called from the mountain at the foot of which it stands: it contains about 1,000 inhabitants, all Indians and mixed castes. It struck me, from the appearance and bearing of the mountain, that it was the town we had remarked as the only symptoms of habitation which we had been able to notice on coasting down to Sonsonate. The belfry-door of the church being open, I ascended to the top of the steeple, when the view of the surrounding country and the ocean, which was just visible, confirmed these conjectures.
We stopped at the house of the padre or curate. His sister, the widow of an officer who died in the late revolution, a matronly woman, above fifty, took care of the establishment, and put herself, I could perceive, a little out of the way to procure us a good repast. Amongst other things, a pair of pigeons were killed for the purpose: I had little inclination for animal food, and as I had once or twice declined to partake of these birds, our hostess, after assuring me they were pigeons, regarded me with a look of pity, and said, in a whisper to the company, "the señor does not understand what they are; he has not seen such birds before, and no sabe (literally translated, 'does not know how,' though it means 'does not like') to eat them." I immediately undeceived her, and taking a bit on my plate, at once preserved her good humour and my reputation as a natural philosopher, in venturing to eat of the rare bird which had been the object of discussion.
On finishing his repast, my companion, Don Simon, took up a large tumbler containing about two pints and a half of water, the greater part of which he conveyed into his stomach, at a draft; and, having rinced his mouth with the remainder, by squirting the contents on the floor, he lighted his cigar, and laid himself down upon one of the benches to sleep. I took this opportunity to saunter about the village; which was so still that the champing of the mules, eating their maize, might almost be heard from one end of it to the other.
Ovid describes Morpheus as one of the kindest of the deities, with his head crowned with poppies: those, who have witnessed his influence in these countries, would add to his titles another, of most obedient, and represent him with a cigar in his mouth: I merely throw this out as a hint to the New London University. I began to despair of picking up any information, and returned home with a determination to take my siesta, agreeably to the hackneyed, though not less sensible, remark, of when in Rome, to do as they do in Rome.
The threshold of the door was occupied by a large mastiff; who had most unceremoniously objected to my entrance in the morning, and when a battle had ensued between us which might have ended disastrously, had he not been called off by his master, who was now asleep: I could not, therefore, depend upon the mediation of that party, and as there was a mere cessation of hostilities between us, not even so favourable as that condition which is diplomatically termed, an armed neutrality, I did not care to disturb the watchful slumber which one of his eyes, that now glared upon me half open, seemed to evince he was enjoying. A cat was laid across his back, lulled in all the security of a minor state which has the countenance and support of a high protecting power. I turned away, listlessly, towards the middle of the road, where there was a small hut and manger, for the accommodation of travellers' mules. Ours had eaten all their corn, and their down-flopped ears and drooping heads made it evident that they were asleep. The luggage was strewed around, and, on lifting up one of the mats to get at my writing desk, I discovered the three muleteers, who were lying stretched upon the ground, having had the precaution thus to shade themselves from the sun, which was now really beaming in all its suffocating splendour. Two out of this triumvirate were also asleep: it was a practical commentary on a well appointed commission.
But where was my servant, the shaver and bleeder from the hospital at Acapulco? I called him two or three times by his right name, Henrico, though in my imagination I always pictured him as Quixote; but he did not appear: I called again, but not very loud; for my voice reechoed so through the dead silence that prevailed that it almost startled me to hear it. There was a slight movement in the hut amongst the mules, and the Chinese came forth with nothing on him but a pair of short cotton trowsers and a night-cap. He stared like a man that had been awakened with the alarm of fire; but take him, all in all, I had never seen such a thing before, except upon a china tea-pot. I found he had been sleeping in the manger; and, as all the tables in the country are, as I said before, used also for the same purpose, it occurred to me that bed and board might, hereafter, illustrate, as an example, what the logicians style, a distinction without a difference.
I roused up the muleteers; and, Don Simon being now busily engaged in the preparations for our departure, we soon left this drowsy portion of creation behind us, and reached Aguachapa about six in the evening. The road to it is extremely hilly: for the first four miles, it winds round a small mountain, covered with beautiful timber-trees, and on the left, towards the sea, is a large fertile country, well cultivated. The labourers, in gangs from fifty to a hundred each, were returning home to the village, which had manifested so depopulated an appearance during the day: they appeared to be healthy and well fed, happy and contented.
Aguachapa is the most considerable town between Sonsonate and the capital: it contains from five to six thousand inhabitants, who follow the same habits and occupations as the two other towns alluded to. On entering it, the road was nearly blocked up by earthenware, which they had just been taking out of the kiln, and which consisted of utensils of all shapes and sizes for domestic use,—the same constituting one of the staple articles of the manufacture of the place. We alighted at one of the best houses in the town, belonging to a respectable man of the name of Padillo. He was much older than his wife, who, although she had, now living with her, a family of five daughters and three sons, the eldest of whom was seventeen years of age, bore the vestiges of a clever, pretty little woman. She had, doubtlessly, been very handsome, for her little daughters, whose ages were from seven to fourteen, were strikingly so, and all of them very much resembling herself. Her husband was on a visit to the family to which I had letters in Guatemala. She managed the business, for there was a shop attached to the house, in which was sold almost every thing that the community could require, with great zeal and ability. Mixed with China crapes and India Bandanas were Irish linens and Manchester cottons; and Birmingham cutlery was exposed to sale on the same counter with the coarser implements which the forges of the natives could produce.
I had broken the stirrup of my saddle, and wanted an additional pocket made to my armas de agua: these are skins of deer, or any other animal, which are suspended from the pommel of the saddle, on each side of the horse, reaching down to below his knees, and which, being untied and unfurled, are brought over the thighs of the rider and tied behind, round the waist, so as to render the lower part of the person perfectly impenetrable to the rain. On stopping at any place to rest or refresh, they are taken off the pommel, and, being stretched upon the ground, form a convenient couch; whilst the pockets of the interior side (the outward is covered with the hair) serve to carry a flasket of liquor, a sandwich box, or any other matter which necessity or convenience may suggest.
The jobs I have alluded to were immediately given to be executed by some cordonniers who belonged to the establishment, but the individuals in question were not altogether shoemakers, for they were now employed in making mule harness and repairing other leathern articles which came within the sphere of their business and ability.
Don Simon was sitting, the greater part of the evening, in deep consultation with our sprightly hostess. She evidently considered him a man in whom she ought to repose the most implicit confidence, as regarded her commercial concerns, and treated him with great attention and respect. His arrival was hailed with delight by the little girls, for what particular reason I had not yet been able to discover, though I afterwards did. It is true he romped with them like a boy, made funny gestures, wry faces and odd noises, played tricks upon themselves as well as upon their cards, and, in short, proved himself a good-natured man and an active friend of the family. In the evening, a large party dropped in: they had heard, no doubt, of the arrival of an English stranger; and, as this was an event which, like the flowering of one of their nopals in England, happens only once in a century, their curiosity, if such was the motive of the visit, was very pardonable.
The saloon in which the company were assembled was a large room having a door at one end into the street, at the other, an entrance into the sleeping rooms, and, in the centre, leading to the court yard, another large folding door. They were all three open, so that there was plenty of air, though the currents, to which the tenants are thus exposed, account, satisfactorily, for the tooth and face ache with which they are so often afflicted. The two inner angles of this apartment, which was about twenty-six feet long by fourteen wide, were occupied by beds of the simplest construction, without posts, or, indeed, any other furniture than a mattress. In the day time, therefore, they answered the purpose of sofas; and such linen as was necessary was brought in and deposited on them when they were required for the night. One of them was now occupied by a youth, who was bedridden. He was the eldest son, and his emaciated frame and despondent visage, which still bore traces of the handsome features of the family, bespoke the probability of his early dissolution. The agonies he suffered seemed to be intense. He had, some months ago, injured his instep by a fall from his horse: it had been gradually getting worse, and was on the verge of mortification. The groans which the poor boy uttered, but which he endeavoured to suppress as much as possible, were heard, at intervals, intermixing with the joyous shouts of the little girls, the solemn periods of the political commentators, and the sprightly repartees of those whose hearts were interested by the passions of gaming or of love: for there was card-playing in one corner of the room; and love-making is a thing of course where young people, being congregated together, find that they have nothing better to do with themselves. The mother would steal occasionally to the couch of her afflicted child, assist him in changing his posture, or lighten the pressure of the bed-clothes; in which office she was occasionally assisted by her daughters. The scene was a mixture of the kindliest sorrows and the thoughtless frivolities and enjoyments of life, blended—as it were, the rose with the thorn—the bud with the worm.
I said there was a door between the saloon and the sleeping apartments of the ladies: I was mistaken; there was only an open door-way: I was sitting in the window seat next to it, and, finding they were undressing to go to bed, removed from it. As we were to set off early in the morning, I could have wished to have retired also to the vacant couch in the apartment which had been prepared for my reception; but I dreaded to pass the night in the room with the poor lad, whose bursts of agony now broke, with periodical uniformity of length and tone, on the stillness which prevailed. The reiterated voice of distress is afflicting, at all times, but most so when it is out of our power to relieve the cause of the affliction: we then become identified with the afflicted, and must leave the rest to patience and endurance. The sympathy, however, with which we witness the miseries of others is, perhaps, not unfrequently mixed with the certain, though secret, satisfaction of our own exemption from them. Having at length retired to rest, I was endeavouring to amuse my mind with some such reflection, when I heard a whispering in the apartment: it was a female voice in conversation on some subject of a deep and apparently highly interesting nature. As there were no glazed windows, the shutters of the room were all closed, excepting a small pannel which was cut in one of them, and which admitted a feeble ray of moonlight. By these means, I was enabled to distinguish two figures, and soon found that the persons in question were Don Simon and the eldest daughter. "I cannot," said the female voice, "without my mother's consent; and if I did, my sister Guadalupe would be so jealous, that I should never have a moment's peace." He answered, that she was foolish to think either of her mother or her sister in the business; that she had nothing to do but to consult her own choice; she had already declared it, and abide by it she must. Thus saying, he walked off, whistling as he came to my end of the apartment, and throwing back an "A Dios" to the "buenas noches," uttered in the tender agitated voice of the young lady, he flung himself into the hammock, with the greater part of his clothes on, and, by the sonorous nature of his respiration, seemed to be asleep, in the course of five minutes.
This despotic kind of love-making was really very extraordinary: it was plain the affections of the young lady were, at best, but indifferent towards him; but, then, what could she do against the "sic volo" of this Western Grand Señor! The lamentations of the poor boy and my own reflections on the scenes I had just witnessed, disturbed my rest. I began to think dubiously of my companion, and how I should measure my behaviour towards him the next day: I had not, hitherto, sufficiently estimated his self-importance; which, although something disgusting, I, now, resolved to humour, on account of its whimsicality. Scarcely had day-light dawned, when, being awake, I perceived standing in the door-way, the beautiful little girl whose future views and interests in life had formed no small part of my contemplation during the night. She was enveloped in a loose night-gown, slightly closed round the waist. Her long black hair fell in graceful and natural profusion down each side of her neck: there was an air of slight anxiety and agitation in her look which gave to her features, which were delicately pretty, an animated cast of interest, which I had not before observed in them. She stepped forward a few paces, and cried, in a half whisper, "Don Simon!" She repeated the name, but no answer was given; again, and still all was silent. Poor thing! thought I, she has repented of her obstinacy, and Don Simon's determination will be gratified and fulfilled. This proved to be the truth; but in a manner very different from what I had anticipated. I was surprised, and, perhaps, a little mortified, to find that I had been wrong in all my conclusions, with respect to the scenes which I had witnessed. The denouement was of a nature perfectly distinct from any that I had contemplated or imagined. Don Simon had risen, and the interview was, now, renewed in the presence of the other sister. I was still in bed, and, being wide awake, could not help listening to the conversation, when I discovered that it was to the following purport.
Don Simon began by insisting on the folly of their wishing to be all alike: he had only brought with him enough for one; and oh, my wounded sensibility! this was not love, but a piece of scarlet pelisse cloth, which was very scarce in the country, but which, by dint of his influence in the line, together with the alacrity which he always manifested in doing a kindness, he had contrived to procure in fulfilment of a commission given to him by the elder young lady. The discussion, however, which ensued was not without its interest: the colour, quality, width, and quantity of the fabric which was to make their pelisses was discussed with an order and pertinacity which were justified by the importance of the subject. Some blue cloth might be obtained, perhaps, at Guatemala, but then the pelisse which was already purchased was English, and it was finally resolved, to the satisfaction of all parties, but especially of Don Simon, who had carried his point, as he seemed determined to do, from the beginning, with the elder daughter, that, as the piece of scarlet cloth could not be matched, they should await the arrival of the next vessel from England which might bring them a fresh importation of that, to them so indispensable, article of British manufacture.