Six Months In Mexico/Chapter 15

Six Months In Mexico  (1889)  by Nellie Bly

At the very least they repay one's trouble for the journey.

As it was about the hour for breakfast, we opened our basket and found one dozen hard-boiled eggs, two loaves of bread, plenty of cold chicken and meat, fruit and many other things equally good and bad for the inner tyrant, and last, but not least, a dozen bottles of beer. That is not horrible, because no one drinks water here, as it is very impure, and two or three glasses have often produced fever. Of course, I could have delicately avoided the beer bottles (in my articles I mean), but I could not resist relating the funny incident connected with them for the benefit of others. One of the party was a strict temperance advocate, and when the bottles were opened the beer was found to be sour, as it is a most difficult place to try to preserve bottled goods. We immediately refused to drink it, but the T. A. said he would test it, so we gave him a glass, which he drained. We were amused, but courteously restrained our smiles; but as bottle after bottle was opened, and the T. A. insisted on testing each one, our mirth got the best of us, and I burst out laughing, joined heartily by the rest. We fed our boatman, and I never enjoyed anything so much in all my life. His hearty thanks, his good appetite, his humble, thankful words between mouthfuls, did me a world of good. The sour beer which was left by the T. A. we gave him, and it is safe to say that the best of drinks never tasted as good as that to our poor boatman.

On the gardens they have put up wooden crosses and tied a cotton cloth to them; they are believed to be a preventive of storms visiting the land, as the wind, after playing with the cotton cloth, is afterward unable to blow strong enough to destroy anything. When we anchored at one of the villages, some men came down and asked us to come to their houses to eat. Each told of the good things his wife had prepared, and one, as an inducement, said, "I have a table in my house." That, of course, is a big thing here, as not one Indian in one hundred owns a table or chair. Pulque is sold very cheap at these villages, and many of the Mexicans come up in boats or on horseback to treat themselves. Along each side of [La Viga] are beautiful paseos, bordered by large shade trees. They form some of the many and most beautiful drives in Mexico; and on Sunday the paseos are filled with crowds of ladies and gentlemen on horseback. It is also one of the favorite places for racing, and any one who is fond of fine riding will have a chance to see it here. Two young fellows took from off the horses the saddles and bridles, then, removing their coats and hats, they rode a mile race on the bare horses. Large bets were made on it, and every one enjoyed the exhibition.

In the afternoon we turned our boat toward the city, followed by a boat containing a family. The father and largest son were doing the poling, and the mother was bathing her babes. She rubbed them with soap, and then, leaning over the edge of the boat, doused them up and down in the water. After she had finished and dressed them in the clothes which had in the meanwhile been drying in the boat, she washed her face and hair, combed it with a scrub-brush, and let it hang loose over her back to dry on the way to town. When we repassed the wash-house encountered going up, we were surprised to see it nearly deserted and the few remaining ones donning their clean linen, getting into their canoes and paddling around the canal. When we reached Santa Anita, a village of straw mansions, we found they were celebrating an annual feast-day, and that the town was not only crowded with guests, but La Viga was almost impassable for boats. On this special day it is the custom for every body to wear wreaths of poppies. The flower-women, seated in the middle of the street, were selling them as fast as they could hand them out.

From a stand a brass band was sending forth its lovely strains, and beneath were the people dancing. They have no square dances or waltzes, but the dance is similar to an Irish reel—without touching one another, and merely balancing back, forth and sideways. Pulque was flowing as freely as Niagara Falls, and for the first time we realized what "dead drunk" meant. One woman was overcome, and had been drawn out of La Viga, into which she had fallen. She lay on the bank, wet, muddy, covered with flies, face down on the earth, with no more life than a corpse. She was really paralyzed.

After we tired of watching them we continued our journey, our boatman wending his way deftly between the crowds of others who were making their way to the feast. They all greeted us and said, many pretty things, because I had put on a wreath. They considered I had honored them. Nearly every boat had one or more guitars, and the singing and music added a finishing touch to the already beautiful and interesting scene. About 200 mounted and unmounted soldiers had gone out to keep the peace, but they entered into the spirit of the thing as much as the others, and doubtless would consume just as much pulque before midnight. Hailing a passing carriage, as we landed, we drove to our house, jotting down the day spent on La Viga as one of the most pleasant of our delightful sojourn in this heavenly land.


When Maximilian first established his royal presence in Mexico he began to do what he could toward beautifying this picturesque valley. The city had been rebuilt on the old Aztec site—the lowest and worst spot in the land. Maximilian concluded to draw the city toward a better locality. In order to do this he selected Chapultepec as the place for his castle, and built lovely drives running from all directions to the site of his residence. The drives are wide, bordered with tall trees, and form one of the prettiest features in Mexico. The most direct drive from the city is the paseo, spoken of in a former letter as the drive for the fashionable. Maximilian intended his home should be the center of the new Mexico, and the paseo—"Boulevard of the Emperor"—was to lead to the gate of his park. From the Alameda to Chapultepec the distance is 5450 yards, with a width of 170 feet. The paseo contains six circular plots, which Maximilian intended should contain statues. Strange to say this plan is partly being executed. Some already contain an equestrian statue of Charles IV., claimed to be second only to one other in the world; a magnificent bronze statue of Columbus, and they are erecting one Guatemoc and one to Cortes. On either side of the paseo are grand old aqueducts, leaky and mosscovered, the one ending at the castle, the other going further up into the mountains. One is said to be nine miles in length. These aqueducts hold very beautiful carved pieces and niches, every here and there, in which are placed images of the Virgin.

Terminating the avenue rises the castle, on a rocky hill some hundred feet high. The castle covers the entire top and stands like a guard to the entire valley. Many hundred years ago the King of the Aztec Indians had this for his favorite palace. Here he ruled, beloved by all, until the white-faced stranger invaded his land, outraged his hospitality and trust; stole his gold and jewels and replaced them with glass beads; tore down his gods and replaced them with a new; butchered his people, and not only made him an imbecile, but caused him to die at the hands of his once loving subjects the despised of all the people. Poor Montezuma! the wisest, best and most honorable King of his time, after all his goodness, his striving for the light of learning, to die such a death.

Since Montezuma wandered beneath the shades of Chapultepec—"Hill of the Grasshopper"—it has been the chosen resort of the successive rulers of Mexico—the theme of poets, the dream of artists and the admiration of all beholders. A massive iron gate, guarded over by dozens of sentinels, admits you to a forest of cypress which excels anything on this continent. The grand old trees, many centuries old, are made the more beautiful by the heavy dress of gray moss which drapes the limbs. The broad carriage road, to which the sun never penetrates, and where the beautiful, shadowy twilight ever rests, winds around and around until it gains the summit. The old bath of Montezuma stands a lovely ruin in this lovely grove; above it is built an engine house for the waterworks, which are to supply the city instead of the aqueduct. With regret we gazed on it, the only blot on the otherwise perfect paradise, and wished that some one, with the taste of Maximilian, had interfered before this mark of progress had been decided upon.

The silvery lake, alive with geese and ducks, and bordered with lilies of the Nile and other beautiful flowers, nestles like a birdling in the heart of the greensward. The fountains play and sing their everlasting song, while birds of exquisite colors mingle their sweet melodies with the tinkle of the falling waters. Plots of flowers vie with each other to put forth the most beautiful colors; all nature seems to be doing its utmost to show its gratitude for being assigned to this beautiful spot. Far back in the forest, is a smooth, level place, where moonlight picnics are often held. The soft drapery of Spanish moss hangs low, yet high enough not to interfere with the headgear. Beneath its shadows one would fain forget the world. We no longer wonder at the "mauana" of the natives, and can clearly see why they wish to live as slow and as long as possible.

When Montezuma reigned supreme he was accustomed to gather together his wise men, and while sitting beneath the shade of a monstrous cypress they would discuss the topics of the day. For this reason the tree is named "The Tree of Montezuma." It is said to be two hundred feet high and sixty feet in circumference. It is heavily draped with moss, and is the most magnificent monument any king could have.

Half way up the hill is an entrance, almost hidden by moss and other creeping foliage, which leads into a cave. The first chamber is a very large room hewn out of the solid rock. At the opposite side is an iron door, barring the way to the cave proper. Many different stories are told of it. One is that the cave was here before the time of Montezuma, and that untold wealth has been hidden in its unexplored recesses when different tribes went to war. Another says that when Cortes was forced to leave he buried his ill-gotten wealth in its darkened depths. The less romantic story is that the subterranean sally-port, which leads down from the garden on the roof of the castle, opens into the cave; they once tried to explore it, and found within a mammoth hole. A rock thrown in was not heard to strike the bottom, and even the bravest feared to go further. The rocks on the hill are covered with hieroglyphics, which archaeologists have not succeeded in translating; the brick fence around the winding drive has passed its day of beauty, and the posts alone remain of the lamps which once lighted Maximilian's pathway.

Having obtained a ticket of admission to the castle from the governor of the National Palace, we took a party of tourists with us and proceeded to investigate. When we had mounted the hill and walked through the iron gate into the
yard, the uniformed sentinel called out something in Spanish, loud and long, and a drummer boy quite near beat a hasty roll. "They must think we intend to storm the castle," said one of the ladies in evident alarm, but her fears were quieted when a young cadet came from the building and offered to show us around. "Can you speak English?" I inquired. "No, I will find some one," he answered in Spanish, and off he went. However, we lost no time waiting for his return, but went to the door of the castle and handed our pass to the guard. "Memento," he said, and he also disappeared, but only to come back accompanied by a handsome, middle-aged officer, who told us, in broken English, our pass was good, and while the guard would take us through the castle he would get us another escort for the rest.

The castle is being renovated for a Mexican White House. A New York firm is to finish it at a cost of one hundred and sixty-five thousand dollars. Our disappointment increased as we roamed through room after room to find all mementos of Maximilian and Carlotta destroyed. Even what had been their bedchamber was a total ruin. The only things that remain are three poor pictures on the wall facing the garden. They had been spoiled, and before many hours the last thing to recall the murdered emperor and the blighted empress would be totally effaced. President Diaz is to move here when the repairs are finished; but if they are no faster with the work in the future than they have been in the past, what they have begun will be old-fashioned before the rest is completed, and Mexico will have added two or three more names to its list of presidents.

On top of the castle is a beautiful garden, full of rare plants and handsome trees and shrubbery. Fountains are plenty, and statues of bronze and marble are strewn around in profusion. The stairway is made of imported Italian marble, and the balconies of alternate blocks of Italian and Puebla marble. The effect is superb. The famous sally-port leads down through the castle from the center of the garden. It is fenced in around the mouth with a brass railing and covered with green vines. Magnificent aquariums divide the flowers at intervals, and the little gold and silver fish play about in the water as if life was all joy. When one looks around the beautiful landscape, the romance of the historic past fades before the grand reality of the present. From this majestic spot one commands a view of the entire valley—the soft, green meadows, the avenues of proud trees which outline the gray roads that always fade away at the foot of the chain of mountains which encircle the valley like a monstrous wall. The faint blue and purple lines of the mountains appear small and insignificant when the gaze wanders to those two incomparable beauties, Popocatapetl and Iztaccihuatl. All nature seems a prayer. Grand old Popocatapetl stands with its white, snowy head at the feet of the White Lady. Perhaps nature has assumed this tranquilness while awaiting the old, white-headed man to say the last sad words over that beautiful still form.

At the back of the castle is the Military Academy, or West Point of Mexico. Three hundred cadets, with their officers, are housed here. The school is kept in the best of order, and when the cadets finish their seven years' course they are well prepared for future duties. The cadets belong to the best families and number a lot of handsome men. The stairway which divides, or rather connects, the two buildings is an odd yet pretty structure. It is built in an arch to the height of ten feet. Then starting out in opposite directions are two other arches, which connect the buildings. These arches the stairway, of course have no supports whatever, and one is almost afraid they may cave in with their weight. When they were finished some one remarked to the builder, "They will fall down if one man mounts them." "Bring a regiment and put on them, and I guarantee they stand," replied the builder. This was done, and they were found to be as firm as a mountain. They are certainly one of the prettiest pieces of architectural work ever executed. In the library of the academy are oil paintings of the cadets who fell in defense of Chapultepec. They were handsome young boys, and a fine marble shaft, inclosed with an iron fence at the foot of the hill, is erected in commemoration of their heroic deed. The prettiest boy of the lot, with sunny locks and blue eyes, folded the flag, for which he was fighting, to his breast, and stood with a smile on his face while his enemies cut him into pieces. He was but thirteen years old. His picture occupies a prominent place, and beneath it stands the flag, dyed a dark crimson with his hearths blood. The cadets keep those little heroes' memories green. Every morning they place wreaths of flowers on the monument as they march on their way to the meadows below to drill.

The cadets have two queer pets, a wild pig and a monkey. The latter is their companion. He performs in the gymnasium with them, and does some wonderful feats. He is truly a smart, cunning little fellow, and exhibits much intelligence. He is fond of the boys, and the boys return his affection. When they come to town on Sundays they never forget to take some sweetmeats back for him; and he never forgets to expect the treat, and he gets very loving and confidential about that time. He hugs the returned youth, and prys into his pockets with as much enthusiasm as though he had been absent for months. Every cadet has a bed with his name, number, etc., on it. A combination desk and wardrobe stands by the side, and in the bottom is a tin pan. At 5.30 they arise, and when the order is given they take up their tin pans and march out to the side of the building. From a large basin they take the water, and placing their pans on a stone bench many yards long they wash themselves. On Sundays they can go to bull-fights, to town to see their relatives, or do anything they wish, unless they have neglected their studies the week before, when they are kept at school for punishment. They are taught French, Spanish, Greek, and English. They are extremely polite, and have not the least objection to flirting. Though they are short in stature they have good forms and are splendid horsemen. In fact, they are the beau ideal of any girl who likes embroidered uniforms and brass buttons, topped off with that cavalier style no female can resist.