Narrative of an Official Visit to Guatemala from Mexico/Chapter 12

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Festivities Continued.—Return to the Capital.

Sunday, 22d May. It was, this day month, that I had left San Cosme: I had, certainly, seen, in that short period, a great deal to entertain and surprise me: I understood that I had made the journey to the coast with unusual quickness, and people could scarcely believe it possible that I should find myself safely arrived in the heart of their country, within so short an interval; but it is the misfortune of travellers, in these parts, to be obliged to wait for conveyance: it is an unusual thing to be picked up by a British frigate, the moment you reach the shore, to convey you to the place of destination. I said it was Sunday morning: by five o'clock, the bells were going for church. I rose early, and found the Plaza crowded with people, flocking from all parts to attend their religious duties: the church, which is large and commodious, and may contain with ease from 400 to 500 people, was, successively, filled by different congregations, until eleven o'clock, when the doors were closed: the Plaza was, now, turned into a complete fair: stalls and booths had been erected in all parts of it; and, on them, were partially displayed, as if by accident, the various goods which the shop-keepers from the capital had come hither to dispose of. Parties of them were cooking their dinners, in gipsy fashion, under the large tree, which, of course, occupied the centre of the square: others were strolling about the beautiful umbrageous lanes which diverged on all sides; or sitting, in merry groups, in the window seats and door-ways of their scanty dwellings. — There was an appearance of life and business, though, in fact, there was nothing doing; so that it was all bustle and vacuity like a bee in an empty bottle.

We dined at one, and had scarcely finished our repast, when the street became, all of a sudden, thronged with people: there was a cock-fight going on in a temporary theatre, which had been erected nearly opposite our house. I paid a trifle for entrance, and had the pleasure of finding myself seated in the dress boxes, amongst some of my fair partners of the preceding evening: great order and decorum were observed, and, with the exception of a little difference of opinion between some parties, in the back benches, as to the construction and adjudication of their bets, but which, although they were by no means frequent, might have puzzled "the Board of Claims," the performance passed off with great approbation and éclat. The birds were well matched, and their condition would have satisfied the learned and critical discernment of Columella himself. I could never witness the feats of these pugnacious creatures, without feelings of respect for them: there is a tribute due to innate bravery, which no one can help feeling, whatever may be the moral propensities of the animal who possesses it: it is true, the bird, of which we speak, is a polygamist; but, then, as the words have it, "he is a kind husband and a tender parent." "His tenderness," (says Aristophanes,) "towards his brood is such, that, contrary to the custom of many other males, he will scratch and provide for them with an assiduity almost equal to that of the hen; and his generosity is so great, that, on finding a hoard of meat, he will chuckle the hens together, and, without touching one bit himself, will relinquish the whole of it to them!" He seems, however, on the other hand, to be the physical instrument, in the menagerie of nature, to establish and sanction the power of might over right; a recommendation of very doubtful quality, were it not supported by the same author, who compares him, in consequence, to the King of Persia; and, by the observation of Pliny, who says, "imperitant suo generi, et regnum, in quacunque sunt domo, exercent." The spectacle was scarcely concluded, before "the rainy season began."

During the whole of my journey, I had scarcely experienced one drop of wet; and, now, the rain poured down in such torrents, that I could hardly cross the way without being nearly drenched. There was no carriage ox conveyance in the place, and, hardly, an umbrella, which was a great oversight, as the inhabitants ought to have learnt, without any almanack to tell them, to "expect much rain about this time." Indeed, the regularity and precision, with which these showers fall, when they once begin for the season, are so great, that, by the assistance of a tolerable watch, and a good horse, you may always escape them. The present tornado, unexpected as it was, seemed very little to disarrange or inconvenience the party assembled; some walked quietly through it, whilst others laughed and chatted in the passage and door-way of the house, as if prudently, though inconsiderately, waiting for its abatement: the inanimate part of creation was differently affected: the parched ground bubbled and sputtered like a drunken toper; the lanky banana crouched down and riggled like an invalid in a shower bath; and the red tiles were deserting their ranks one by one, like bad soldiers, leaving the way open to the enemy. Whilst the squall was at its height, I saw two horsemen come dashing up the street, at full speed: they stopt at the door of the cock-pit: they were each covered with a large mantle; and, without alighting, had caught up, in their arms, a damsel, a-piece, who adjusted themselves, with wonderful activity, on the pommels of the saddles: it was still raining profusely, but the mantles were thrown round the young ladies with such skill, and so completely enveloped them with their gallant knights, who darted off again, at a gallop, that I concluded they must have reached their homes in an instant, and probably without much inconvenience. The gentlemen when they had set down, returned to take up, in the same manner, till the whole of the party was thus disposed of, or had found other means of reaching their respective abodes. There was something both romantic and classical in the sight: every body has heard of the knights of old carrying off their inamoratas, and of the Romans stealing away their Sabine wives; but few can have an idea of the grace and facility with which the operation may be performed, who has not witnessed the above specimen of Guatemalian horsemanship.

The Lake of Amatitañ is a fine expanse of water, extending about three leagues in length, and a league in breadth: the extremity of it, farthest from the town, loses itself round the lofty mountain, which also bears the name of the place: the left side is closed in by sloping hills, topped by lofty sierras; so that the shore is only accessible on the right, along which there is an indifferent road, but highly picturesque and beautiful, as being flanked by high shady groves and stupendous ravines. The mountain is volcanic, and the lake and phænomena of the surrounding land shew, incontestably, that the whole scene, as presented to our view, has been the effect of some irruption. When that event took place no one pretends to know: the lake is very ancient, and the inhabitants believe that the Indians, on the arrival of the Spaniards, threw into it all their riches. This is so hackneyed a story, in all parts of the South American dominions, that it is hardly worth mentioning, but to be refuted or discredited; but what I could ascertain from the Indians themselves is, that they have a tradition to that effect, to which they give full credit; they admit that some trifling attempts have been made to raise the wealth supposed to be submerged, but always, hitherto, without effect. The lake is fathomless at fifty yards from the nether end of the shore; every body seemed to be agreed in this; and, as the Indians will have it that the riches were thrown in between this immeasurable depth and the land, the probability is that they have, long since, been washed down into the abyss. They all agree, nevertheless, that, not many years ago, their grappling apparatus came in contact with a large jar which they endeavoured, in vain, to raise, as the tackle gave way, and as it has done more than once since, when they have had the good fortune to light upon it.

Close to the lake, nearest the town, is a hot spring: as we were walking by it, we saw three or four women bathing, and a number of young children crying and steaming on the banks as if they had been parboiled. The waters are considered very salutary, particularly in cutaneous disorders, but the women bathe chiefly to promote fecundity: these poor creatures are as anxious to have a family, as many Europeans of the lower and poorer classes, in Liverpool and Manchester, are glad to be without one. They are excessively fond of their children, and seem to think they can hardly have too many of them. This hot spring is equally useful to assist parturition, and it is not unusual to see the mother walking home with her infant after having had recourse to the obstetric assistance of its waters. The cold bath of the adjoining lake and of a clear rapid river, which flows into it, are also very generally used both by the inhabitants and the visitors. About twelve o'clock, on passing the banks of the latter, it seemed as if the whole population of the place had agreed to take a bath together. The better classes availed themselves of the bathing houses, and other protections which decency suggests; but the whole scene was shamefully at variance with its dictates.

The bathing houses alluded to are small wooden buildings erected on the sides of the river, by the more opulent part of the community, for times of recreation, similar to the present: they consist of one square or octagonal sitting room, with windows, unglazed, looking out in every direction: as they are raised on pillars, over the water, a temporary slight covering hung round the lower part of them, affords, at once, a fresh and convenient bath. The water is very rapid and clear, and well stocked with fish: those of the lake are particularly plentiful and well flavoured: there is one species, like a tench, which is most prized, but, as there are few persons who will take the trouble to catch them, they are by no means cheap. I saw but two small boats on the whole of the lake, and I question whether either of them had ever ventured so far as to round the mountain: in fact, there was nobody that could tell me whether the water ended there, abruptly, whether it narrowed into a creek, or whether, or no, it ended there at all. "Sufficient for the day is the evil thereof," is the axiom by which the South American Indian directs his life: he is a sort of animated vegetation that requires nothing for its support but what the terraqueous globe, in its spontaneous liberality, affords: some maize, some Chili-pepper and the pure spring are all the meat and drink he wishes for. It is well known that the Agave, which produces the drink called Pulque, is very fastidious as to the places in which it thrives. I had not tasted or seen any of this beverage since my second day's journey out of the capital of Mexico: it is a drink so universally approved of by the Indians, that it is hardly possible to conceive that they would not go to the trouble of cultivating the plant, if it would grow; and, yet, as I did not meet with it in many spots which appeared as congenial to its cultivation as Amatitañ, it can be only inferred that laziness is the cause why so great a portion of those countries is deprived of that exhilarating and wholesome substitute for water, or, as some think, for wine.

Every evening, during these holidays, there were balls, monte-tables, (a sort of game of odd and even,) and other pastimes to make life slide lightly away: the festivities finished with the evening of Tuesday: the place was all in bustle, making ready for departure: here, some unsold goods were ticketed, as tempting bargains, and, there, were others forced upon the market, by petty auctions. The young people seemed inclined, also, to make the most of their time: their gaiety and good humour were still abundant, and more than they had time to dispose of. However, by six o'clock the next morning, they were all on their return to the capital. As the roads, from without ten miles of it, are, in most places, perfectly impassable for carriages, the whole party were on mules or on horseback, and, as they were accompanied with their retinues of servants of every description, with all their requisite utensils and articles of furniture, even to their beds, they formed, as winding up the wild passes of the mountain, or scattered over the verdant plains, a spectacle highly picturesque and amusing. All the families were, of course, acquainted with each other: every one seemed to know every thing about every body's affairs. According to the custom of the Spaniards, they addressed one another by their Christian names: the servants of one family were riding by the side of, and were in converse with, the gentry of another; whilst the servants of the latter were admitted to the same familiarity with the representatives of the former:—when Jacob had embraced his brother Laban, and veered off to the land of his fathers, he was not accompanied by a more patriarchal-like community than that which was now journeying towards the plains of San Juan.

We had come to a narrow defile in the mountain, where there was room for only one passenger to pass, abreast: the sides of it were composed of high walls of clay which the rain had made smooth and slippery: I was bringing up the rear of the caravan, when my progress was arrested, in the middle of this awkward spot: a mule had slipped down, and would not, or at least the damsel, whom it had carried, could not prevail upon him to, get up. She had slid off his back, uninjured, but her Benjamin which was of very fine cloth, and richly embroidered with lace, had not fared so well: it was shockingly besmeared with dirt, and her little black riding hat, which had come in contact with the bank, as, in endeavouring to gain her footing, she had slipped up against it, was very much disfigured, being, now, fawn-coloured on one side and black on the other, having a very harlequinade shape and appearance. However little disposed a man may be for acts of gallantry, there are some cases in which he cannot help himself; this was clearly one of them. I dismounted, twisted the mule's tail, vociferated a word which I do not approve, (I do not mean to say it was swearing,) but which I had observed the muleteers used on such occasions, with infallible effect, and up the creature jumped, in an instant. The damsel was re-seated, and we proceeded after the rest of the travellers, who had, now, got far a-head of us.

My companion was a slight, delicately formed, girl, something of a creole, but showing more of Indian caste than any other; about eighteen years of age: she was very chatty, and communicated many anecdotes of the different families who had been present at the revels: she told me of all the matches which were on the tapis, and hinted at some little pieces of scandal which it would be ungenerous and unnecessary for me to put down: she reminded me, as we jogged along, of a pretty, ambling paragraph of "The Morning Post," which nobody would like to be seen looking at, but which every body would like to see. What she was I knew not, but found that, although not a lady, she was a lady's maid,—a personage who is generally, and as it proved to be in this case, a finer lady than her mistress; she was servant to the amiable little daughter of Doña Vicente, the lady of whose hospitality I was partaking. The girl had now, it seemed, a lawful right to my protection; and I, therefore, hastened on to join the family; but as we quickened our pace, I heard a scream; and, looking round, saw the poor creature in a most alarming situation: the girths of her saddle had given way, being so predisposed to do, perhaps, by the late effects of the fall, which had snapped, but not entirely broken, them asunder: such, however, was now the fact, and the saddle, being deprived, as a counsel would say, of its special retainers, was going upon a circuit very prejudicial to the interest and safety of the plaintiff in the case, and whose suit had, already, suffered so much by false colouring as well as by bar of process. I slackened my pace as quickly as I could; just in time to save her from falling: she fell, however, upon my off shoulder; and, in this position, with her arms about my neck, we continued our fearful course for some minutes. I might, perhaps, have checked my horse, but her mule had taken a fancy to gallop, as if determined to make up for the time we had lost. What to determine upon, myself, I did not know: to stop was dangerous,—to leave her was impossible: what was a man to do?—She was now relying upon me rather than her saddle; and it was fortunate that she did so, for this gave way, whilst I, constitutionally, kept my post, like an Envoy Extraordinary, with a troublesome attachée. With my right arm, I supported the poor girl who had swooned with fright, though I switched and jerked with my left, with a spirit of apprehension unknown to a Melton Mowbryan. All would not do: away we went, but whither we were going I could not contemplate: I had, however, some confused ideas of the Knights of Romance and the Rape of the Sabines, and had time to conclude that the equestrianism I had witnessed at Amatitañ was a fool to mine, and that Astley would have given a fee simple of his establishment for the picture we exhibited. After a precipitous run, for some seconds, my horse, fortunately, became so entangled with the underwood of the forest, that he could proceed no farther: I loosened my hold of my troublesome charge, dismounted, fastened the bridle to a branch of one of the trees, and began to consider what was best to be done: to call for assistance was useless, for no one was within sight or hearing. Recollecting, however, that I generally travelled with a small flasket of brandy in the pocket of my armas de agua, I searched for it, and, luckily, found a small portion left in the bottle, which I immediately applied to the temples and also to the mouth of my patient, and soon succeeded in restoring her to a perfect state of sensibility: after some difficulty, she was remounted in the saddle before me, and, having regained the road, we came up, at length, with our party; who were stopping to take their lunch and siesta in a substantial-looking building, which stood in a solitary situation, in the midst of a large plain.

As it was a convenient resting-place, a sort of half-way house, every portion of it was occupied by the travellers: it consisted of two small rooms, one a kitchen, the other a bed-room, with a viranda runing the whole length of the front, and edged with a wall of about two feet in height, on which some of the party were sitting. I thought they seemed to stare at us, as we came up, for they stopped smoking, and knocked the ashes from their cigars: others were smoking ad libitum as they lay stretched along their temporary couches on the floor, or were eating or drinking, or sleeping or lounging, according to the most approved systems of the midday recreation appointed and provided for the sojourners in all tropical climates.