Narrative of an Official Visit to Guatemala from Mexico/Chapter 19
On returning to dine with Doña Joanita, I found the house filled with company: it was also her natal day. A table was laid in the chief saloon for a large dinner party; and we sat down, upwards of thirty in number, to one of the best Spanish dinners that I had seen in those countries. Don J. Montufar, the deputy of the Antigua to the federal congress, to whom I had letters of introduction, besides having been intimately acquainted with him in Mexico, presided. Toasts to his Britannic Majesty and the people of England were reiterated upon this occasion, with such a spirit of delight and exhilaration that to believe them not to be sincere would be to believe, which I never can, that the Guatemalians are the most deceitful race of beings in the world.
After dinner, the whole party walked out to witness the rejoicings which were going on in the town in honour of the birth-day of the gefe politico: groups of the inhabitants were dancing in the street, and, amidst the discharge of salvos of fire-works were heard the brazen jargon of the war-inspiring trumpet mingled with the peaceful tinkling of the guitar: a partial illumination added to the brilliancy of the scene: the night was fair and calm: hardly a breath of air was felt: the luxuriant groves, which surrounded with their barriers of evergreens this romantic city, were as motionless as the mountains on which they grew. The moon was perpendicular in the blue canopy of the cloudless sky, and no perceptible shade was cast on the objects it enlightened; it was suspended in its airy dome like a sinumbra lamp over the theatre of these festivities. I had strolled away from the company to muse upon the beautiful scene: the distant buzz of life contrasted itself strangely with the solemn stillness of the countless unknown graves, on which I trod: every footstep seemed a warning of dissolution;—for the ground echoed, and the dust was teeming with the remains of those who had been entombed in the midst of life: twice in half a century had the inhabitants of this beautiful but awful spot been cut off in the meridian of their enjoyments, snapped off like flowers from the stem, and—but their surviving relatives seemed unmindful of their fate.
I had again entered the town: the Plaza or Grand Square was still thronged with those who, from gaiety, indolence, or curiosity, had come to witness the festive scenes which were offered to their enjoyment. The fireworks were not exhausted, the lamps were still brilliant, and the crowd was yet dense. Two opposite sides of the square were occupied, one by the municipal house and public offices, the other by a place of worship, and the two other sides by mercantile store houses and magazines for provisions; — the whole presenting an epitome of church, state, agriculture and commerce. Whilst these thrive, political economists say people will be happy, and, even when they do not, they may, sometimes, be found to be happy without them. Those who were assembled in this instance seemed to be as joyous and free from thought as if such subjects had never entered into their contemplation. The transitions from care to frivolity, from anxiety to carelessness, are so rapid and imperceptible, especially amongst the vulgar, that it is the province of a wise government to provide, as much as possible, for the amusements of the public. The privileges upon which the fairs in England were established were chiefly adapted to this end; and the maintenance of similar rights by the meaner classes in the South American republics is, perhaps, amongst the principal causes why they have remained faithful to whatsoever dynasty they may have become subjected.
As I proceeded up the long street which led to the house of Doña Joanita, I passed a band of musicians, consisting of three guitars, a violin and a bass: as the dancing was subsiding in the square, they were looking out for employment, in some domestic meeting for the remainder of the evening. On entering the gateway of the court yard, I stumbled against a carriage: it was without horses, and the only carriage, not only at the rout I was attending, but, I believe, in all the town. Why it stood there, I do not know, for it was very wide and large, and almost filled up the gateway. I found that it constantly stood there, and, indeed, seemed always ready to be going out, but, like some rich and noble specimen of cabinet work, reflecting credit and honour on the proprietor, it had become stationary, and maintained its place for the purpose, I conclude, of supporting the dignity of the establishment.
Upon entering the grand sala, it presented a very animating spectacle: the sconces on the sides of the walls were all lighted with as many candles as they could hold, which were at least a dozen; the two bedsteads had been removed; there was great bustling amongst the servants, and many of the poorer classes had formed themselves into groups, as usual, around the spacious door: the company, which already amounted to forty persons, were, many of them, better dressed than at the dinner; especially the young ladies, who, by their lively deportment and conversation, seemed to evince a degree of enjoyment rather anticipated than felt, but which is seldom felt equal to the anticipation: there were, evidently, preparations for a ball; and there are few young ladies, I believe, who have returned from one so happy as they went to it. Amongst the company, I discovered the three cousins of the hostess, whom I had called upon by mistake: they were, certainly, with one or two exceptions, the belles of the party. One of these ladies appeared to have two lovers, each of whom was so zealous in his attentions, that the poor girl was quite bewildered, and so, instead of dancing all the evening, very pleasantly, as she had anticipated,—in order not to offend them, she danced with neither; but whether by reality or design, became so much affected with her situation, as to be obliged to lie down, which she very conveniently did in one of the beds of the next room. As there was only a door-way between the apartments, she was, of course, constantly attended by her gallants, who took her ices and such other refreshments as her case required. Her young female acquaintances appeared to feel much for her situation, and, to do them justice, I observed them often peeping, with anxiety, to see if they could render any assistance. One of them, not so well gifted as the rest in point of personal attractions, seemed to be the most sedate young person in the whole party; she was, also, of a very contemplative disposition; for, having fixed herself at the end of the bench near the door-way, she kept her eyes, as it were, rivetted on the couch of her unfortunate companion. How amiable is sympathy!!
Whether it was sympathy for her female companions or sympathy with her lovers I don't know, but the fair invalid, before the ball was over, relieved the former from their watchings and the latter from their attendance. She came into the room with a sprightly air, and, whilst throwing a side-long glance of consolation to one lover, threw her arm round the waist of the other, and glided gently off into the graceful movements of the waltz.—This was very puzzling: she had been decidedly indisposed, and was now quite well, miserable, and now happy; had two lovers who had been both jealous, and now both contented: I sat myself down by the one who seemed the least favoured, and, prompted by curiosity, endeavoured to turn the conversation upon the subject of the señorita's affections; nothing, however, could be gathered from him to explain the enigma. "I always loved her dearly", he remarked, "and wished to see her married to an hombre de bien" (honourable man); and he continued, in a confidential whisper, "the señor she is dancing with is a freemason." "What," said I, "and is he, therefore, not an honourable man?" He drew up his lips as if they had expressed more than he intended, and, striking off the ashes of his cigar with the little finger of the same hand in which he held it, took two reviving puffs, and muttered, quien sabe!
This expression, which literally means, "who knows!" is generally intended to convey the sense of "I don't know." As in the course of a person's travels, he seldom meets with any body who can give him any information on the subject of his inquiry, quien sabe is, nine times out of ten, the answer he receives to his interrogatories. It is, however, sometimes meant to express a doubt, the proportion of which is to be ascertained by the height of the shrug of the shoulders of the party speaking, also by the duration of the position: the head is thrown on one side, and the eyes cast obliquely downwards in the opposite direction: as the quien sabe, on this occasion, was expressed with all these adjunct qualifications, which were highly distinctive both as to manner and duration, it was evident that my proposition had, at least, the benefit of a very serious doubt, and that, in the estimation of my worthy companion, a freemason might be an honourable man.
I expected to dance the next waltz with our amiable little hostess, and was looking out for her, when the señor I had just left came up to offer me a partner, who, I found, was no other than the señorita with whom his rival had been dancing: there was so much of platonic liberality in the proposition that I could not refuse, and engaged myself for the following dance;—though girls in love are generally very stupid society for any body but their lovers;—a thousand little things may be said, with effect, and so as to amuse a partner not labouring under such prescriptive feelings:—it is an irksome task and requires laborious address, under such circumstances, to make yourself agreeable. Fortunately for me, this was not the case, in the present instance: my partner, who was one of the prettiest in the room, was also an admirable dancer: she was lively and chatty: the delicacy of her situation appeared to have no effect upon her: she seemed as if she was, either, a stranger to the tender passion or in the habit of being perfectly familiarised with it: but, to speak fairly, neither one nor the other was the case; for, "Oh!" said she, in answer to some questions which I put to her, "I have been engaged these three years to Don Juan: and my brother, with whom you were talking, has only, this evening, withdrawn his dissent from our union"!
I have related this anecdote, because, trifling as it is, it may serve to exculpate the ladies of these countries, in some degree, from the opprobrium which has been so unreservedly thrown upon them. That they are fond of gallantry and are careless in the manner of evincing their disposition towards it, there can be no doubt, but, there are in Guatemala, no less than in every other country, many who form exceptions to that rule, being, in spite of all appearances, both amiable and virtuous:—with a few false colourings and unwarrantable conclusions, what character can be safe? A prejudiced observer would have made an amusing story of our little Guatemalian Inamorata.
The party was now disposed in groups, playing guitars and singing in concert: they were seated on the benches round the room, whilst the supper was being laid: I sat next, at this repast, to a pretty young widow, who was sister of Don — one of the late executive: she had just been married to a young man who had nothing but his personal accomplishments and character to recommend him: these were deemed satisfactory motives on the part of the lady, but not so with her family; who, from what I could find, had slighted her in consequence. She was, however, considered as a lady of rank, and occupied a distinguished place amongst the guests: her domestic situation seemed, nevertheless, to occupy her thoughts, and she recounted to me the little projects which her husband and herself were planning for increasing their income: the principal of these was the cultivation of cochineal: with a capital of about 3000 dollars they had already planted 2000 nopals, which were to produce, after the first year, provided they did not meet with a bad season, an annual return, every year after, of the whole of their outlay. I sincerely wished her success in the operation, and have been glad to find, by inquiries which I afterwards made, that she was not much too sanguine in her calculations. Opposite to us sat a rich old Spaniard, who might have been about sixty-five years of age, and had just married, for his third wife, a girl of seventeen, who was amusing herself with the younger gallants at the bottom of the table: he had been very diligent at dinner in carving the dishes; and it was amusing to observe the order and precision with which he had required they should each be, successively, handed round to the guests: he was equally diligent in the same employment during the supper, and went through it like a man of business: I understood he had been one all his life; he had now retired, and had transferred, it seems, his attentions from the counter to the table. Yet, the poor old gentleman had his troubles: he had not calculated, till after his marriage, that there was half a century betwixt his wife's age and his own.