Narrative of an Official Visit to Guatemala from Mexico/Chapter 11

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Family of Doña Vicente.—Festivities at Amatitañ.

Saturday, 21st. The family with whom I had taken up my abode, consisted of Doña Vicente Cuellar y Rascon, and her daughter Maria Jesus, the eldest of a large family, and probably about twenty-five years of age. Don José de Padillo, the father of the interesting family at Aguachapa, was living with them. The house was large but not very commodious, and very indifferently furnished; it was hired for the Guatemalian season.

Amongst the little festivities with which the time abounded, was one which was going on at a retired and beautiful hamlet about twenty miles from the city, on the road towards the south sea. All the fashionables were setting off thither to partake of this rural recreation; and, being invited to join the party of my kind hostess, I mounted my little horse, who had now perfectly recovered, and off we set with the rest of the community. The young lady of our party was mounted on a pony, accompanied by a gentleman on horseback, who was very attentive to her; for, in addition to her personal attractions, she had a large fortune, and had had many offers, which she had hitherto refused: her mother was conveyed in a hammock swung upon a stout pole, borne by four Indians, and four others as relays: another conveyance of the same nature was appropriated to the use of Don José Padillo. Then there were three or four female domestics, mounted either on ponies or mules; and sundry mules loaded with beds, kitchen furniture, boxes with wardrobes, eatables and other necessaries. As many other parties, equally well furnished and provided, were issuing out of the town, at the same time, the appearance was very novel and grotesque. The beautiful and bright serenity of the climate, the loveliness of the surrounding prospects, the agreeable variety of the route through which we passed, rendered the journey to me highly interesting and amusing.

About eleven o'clock we had reached a hamlet called Villa Nueva, a very poor spot: the chief house was used as a general place of refreshment: it consisted, as usual, of only two rooms, which were both occupied, almost to suffocation. The yard, also, was so crowded, with the mules and baggage of the various parties who had stopped to refresh themselves, that many of the travellers had left it to congregate, more at their ease, under the hedges and trees in the lane in which the inn stood. We strolled up the village and made a call at a large farm-house, looking into the church-yard; where we saw a lady who had been bed-ridden for some months, owing to a bad confinement. I did not understand much about the particular causes of her indisposition, but the poor woman looked dreadfully pale and emaciated, and, from the sort of encouragement given to her by her medical attendants, there was but little chance of her recovery. Who those attendants were I cannot guess, but I fear the practice of medicine and surgery is at a very low ebb, no less in the capital than in every other part of the country. Having taken our lunch, (a very good one by the bye,) in the viranda, in front of the house, it was necessary to lie down and take our siestas. Doña Vicente and Don Jose preferred their hammocks, which were slung in the viranda, and, as there were two beds in the further room, they were occupied by the young lady and myself.

As we approached the village of Amatitañ, the country became more and more interesting. From the summit of a lofty eminence, which our animals had gained with laborious exertion, the prospects which opened before us were enchanting and terrific, like the charms of some beautiful female maniac. On our right, were the mountains rising abruptly from the deep imbedded valleys at their base: here there were copses hanging over craggy ravines, whose abysses appeared bottomless, as hid from our inquiring gaze: and there, plots of ground delicately cultivated, and smiling with the harvest. On the left, I was still more struck with the appearances which the prospect presented to our observation. It was as if, in the midst of her happiest efforts, Nature had fitfully thrown up her task, prodigally wasteful of materials so choice and abundant.

Amatitañ, the village to which we were going, was situated amidst forests of trees of the most exhilarating verdure. Its red tiled houses, awakening the ideas of peaceful domesticity and social comfort, heightened the refreshing effect of the scene. Above the whole, a lofty woody mountain flung its partial shade over the fair face of the lake which reposed at its feet. The descent of the wood seemed difficult, and would have appeared impossible, but from the reflection that the journey down it was practicable, because it had often been made. As we descended, we came closer and closer to the object we were pursuing, and, different from most other objects of human pursuit, we found, that, when attained, the more interesting it proved. At the bottom of the hill, is a kind of waiting house or house of call for those who are going up, or coming down, this appalling precipice. Those who are going up do right to recruit themselves with something to enable them to undertake the difficulties of it, and those who have undergone the perils of the descent deserve some recompense for their trouble.

We entered the village about six o'clock in the evening, and took possession of a house which had been left, I cannot say, prepared, for our reception. It consisted, of course, but of two rooms; one of which was about twenty feet long, nearly three fourths of the length of the building, and the other, running in a right angle at the end, about fifteen feet long and eight wide. The latter apartment communicated with the large one by an open door-way, and formed the left wing or extremity of the house. Behind it were four or five cottages, thickly inhabited with men, women, and children. I wondered, as their huts consisted of only one room and a kitchen, where they could all sleep; but the way in which we managed, quickly solved that difficulty. Eating, drinking, and sleeping, they say, are amongst the non-naturals of life: but they were here performed in the most simple, and, therefore, the most natural, way that I could possibly have contemplated. Five gentlemen's beds were made up in the room in which I slept, besides three ladies' beds in the room adjoining, not to mention the female attendants, who slept on the floor of the latter apartment.

The dinner table was furnished with a profusion of luxuries: great sobriety was observed by the gentlemen: two or three glasses of wine was all they drank; but before the cloth was removed, they applied themselves to the comfort of the cigar: a glutton might have said, like the apostrophiser in the old play, "All our joys end in smoke," but with my companions it was in the words of the poet, "Never ending, still beginning;" and we had not finished our recreation, before we were summoned, by a special invitation, to a ball. I was a little startled at the proposal, for I had no dress fit for the purpose, and had nothing on but a Cashmire shawl jacket, worked with frogs and lace, according to the Mexican costume, and white waistcoat and trowsers: and I doubted whether my Chinese, who was a great enemy to redundancy in apparel, had put me up, what the tailors term, a "dress frock coat." But my speculations were defeated, upon the first expression of my doubts, as to the propriety of my apparel: I was assured that it was a party, sans ceremonie, and, without ordering the carriage, for the distance was not a hundred yards from the house, we all set off, on foot, to the place of entertainment. The music had drawn to the door of the house in which the ball was held all the idle stragglers and holiday company of the place: we had much difficulty in obtaining an entrance: there were three rows of benches placed round the walls of the three sides of the apartment, and at the end were tables of refreshment, consisting of fruit, cakes, wine, and eau de vie.

If I was struck with the homeliness of the place in which these revels were going on, I was much more so with the bevy of beautiful women with which the apartment was tenanted. I had seen the richest and most superb assemblies which Mexico could boast, but, here, appeared before me, at one view, as it were, selections of all the handsomest I had before seen in that metropolis. It is true, I had previously heard from the Mexican ladies of the beauty of the Guatemalians; but, whilst I was endeavouring to account, philosophically, for the superiority of the latter, suggesting to my imagination the effects of a moister atmosphere, and a table land six thousand feet lower than that of the valley of Mexico, and some such other propositions as an old author says ought "duly to be inquired into for the forming of a well proportioned, righte, judgement thereupon;"—I was asked if I should like to dance. There were nothing danced but waltzes, and I must say they were performed with great delicacy and elegance. The figures and attitudes were even more varied and multiplied than I had seen them at Mexico: there were present some of the noblest families of the place, and two or three of those of the ministry;—so that I set the meeting down as a Transatlantic branch-Almacks.

I had the honour of being introduced to Don José de Beteta, minister of finance: he was, here, fulfilling the part of a looker on, a character more necessary in a ball-room than the world gives them credit for; for, crowding, as they are accustomed to do, about the outer ranks of the dancers, they serve as a screen to the blunders of the awkward and diffident, and excite, by their notice, the exertions of those who dance for applause, in the ill-dissembled confidence of their pretensions: — neither pretensions nor confidence were wanting on the present occasion. The music consisted of eight guitars, played with wonderful effect: for the musicians took different parts, and seemed, occasionally, almost to forget they were playing the same tune; so strongly marked were the variations of each performer: but the effect was delightful, and the precision with which they kept their time, considering how they were travelling away from each other, very remarkable,—comparable, indeed, with nothing but the harmonious system of our English mail-coach guards; who, with their patent locked time-keepers, all travel different ways, yet come home, to the instant, without regarding their respective bars, whether they be those of their leaders or those which they, separately, have to pass.

The scene was now all lively and exhilarating: about thirty couple, as many as the room would conveniently accommodate, were moving in graceful circles around it, impelled according to, what Newton calls, though he was a philosopher, and knew nothing about waltzing, "the ratio of their centrifugal forces and the respective influence of their attractions." The door leading into the street was crowded by a motley group of the holiday company, who had sufficient curiosity to witness the proceedings of their betters, but too much modesty or diffidence to follow their example. Two or three of the front rows of this "observant class of the community" as Washington Irving has it, were squatted down in front of the door, forming a semi-circle before it; behind them were children, who could just peep over their heads; next to them, some children of a larger growth, and, behind them, standing on tiptoe, some of a larger still: the scantiness of their dress, and their exposure to the ungenial blast, as it rushed through the aperture, to equalize the temperature of the heated apartment, reminded me of a botanical show of Flemish flowers, in the month of March;—where few of them survive the exhibition; and it appeared to me that this innocent assemblage, who were caught by curiosity, would be indemnified by catching something in return, if it was only—a cold. I fell into conversation with Don Jose de Beteta: he was (for I regret to say he is since dead) a man of unimpeachable character for integrity; his abilities, though not of the first order, were respectable and adequate to the discharge of his official duties: he promised to draw up for me a report on the state of their revenue and finance, and I took the liberty of suggesting a few points with respect to the plan and contents of the proposed documents. My attention was occupied the rest of the evening by the dancers. All was over by eleven, and, in the course of half an hour after, a dead silence pervaded the whole village of Amatitañ. Just as I was dropping to sleep, I heard the sound of music, at a distance: at first, it seemed but the vibrations of harmony which the ear carries away with it from a ball, and which, like other doubtful-gotten property, is often very troublesome: it presently became more distinct, and, at last, stopped before our house, where it continued to play for an hour. It consisted of two guitars and a violin; and, by the peculiarity of some of the notes, I concluded it was executed by gentlemen-performers. This proved to be the case: they were serenading the black-eyed, amiable, little daughter of our hostess, whom I could, now, hear bustling about in her apartment, and acknowledging the compliment, which was paid to her, by a short parley held between her and her Lotharios through the iron-barred lattice of her balcony window.