Our Sister Republic/Chapter 19

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CHAPTER XIX.


FROM PUEBLA TO ORIZABA.


HAVING hurried through Puebla as rapidly as possible, giving ourselves but half the time we should have taken earlier in the trip to inspect that old, historic city, its churches and its ruins, and the interesting country surrounding it, we left on the 23d of December for Orizaba. Mr. Fitch was placed under the care of Col. Geo. M. Green as a military and moral precaution, and sent off in advance by the regular diligence which left at 2 a. m., and the rest of the party, accompanied by Señor Bossero, the commissioner sent out to Guadalajara by the Mexican Government to escort Mr. Seward through the entire Republic, left at sunrise in a special coach. Miss Parkman, daughter of an American thirty-two years resident in Guanajuato and married to a Mexican lady, had joined the party at the City of Mexico to go home with Mr. Seward, to remain a year and learn the English language, of which she was, up to the time of our arrival, entirely ignorant.

The morning air was chilly and raw when we left Puebla, and for the first time since leaving Manzanillo, we saw a fog hanging over the landscape. This fog came from the Gulf of Mexico, and was, we were told, the effect of a Norther blowing down the coast.

After a time it lifted, and rolled up the mountains in thin wreaths of snowy vapor, which softened the ragged outlines of the great volcanoes, made the naked, brown, lavatic peak of Malinchi appear to shoot upwards thousands of feet higher into the blue heavens, and as it took on the hues of the sea-shell and the rainbow, when lighted up by the rising sun, crowned with a turban of glory the white head of the monarch Orizaba.

Our first halting place was at Amozoc, an old Indian city, now principally famous for the skill of its workers in iron, and the shrewd impertinence of its venders of the articles. The coach had not fairly come to a stop, before the windows were blocked by peddlers of finger-rings, spurs, bridle-bits, toy flat-irons, etc., etc., of blue steel, inlaid with silver and handsomely engraved, which they thrust in our faces, and offered at the most fabulous prices, at the same time inviting a bid of any kind. We got about a quart of toy flat-irons, rings marked "M. L."—Mexico Libre—or Mexico is Free—etc., for a few dollars, and then a youth with a sinister countenance, tossed a pair of Spanish spurs—each of which would weigh fully a pound avordupois—into my lap, and insisted on my purchasing them.

"How much?"

"Nine dollars, Señor, and they are very cheap!"

"I will give you three dollars."

"Oh no, your Excellency, but you shall have them for eight."

"Not if the court knows herself; I will give you three."

"You shall have the spurs—and the silver is genuine, Señor—and this magnificent bridle-bit for seven dollars?"

"Do you want three for the spurs? I don't want the bit as a gift; it is a thousand years out of date, and must have been stolen by your ancestors from Hernando Cortez or Alvarado!"

"Five dollars, Señor?"

"No!"

"Four?"

"No!"

"Well, here take them!" and I did take them, and found next day that he had offered them to Col. Green a few hours previous for two dollars, and asked him what he would give—indicating a willingness to accommodate by going lower. I shall never wear those spurs with any degree of satisfaction.

The iron is produced near the railway, some twenty miles from Puebla, and is converted into steel and wrought up with much skill by the native citizens, with the very rudest appliances.

The people in the vicinity have a reputation for eccentricity. When the first telegraph line was erected along the road from Orizaba to Puebla, miles of the wire disappeared from the poles in the vicinity of Amazoc every night, in the most mysterious manner. At length the company offered to compromise with the iron-workers by giving them, as a free present, a given quantity of wire annually, provided they would ensure the line remaining intact. The proposition was rejected with scorn, as an insinuation of a doubt upon the honesty and fair fame of the iron- workers; but the wire continued to go off, until the company adopted a different material which could not be made useful by the skillful workers in blue steel and silver, and now everything is lovely, and the line hangs high and undisturbed. When the railway company, at the collapse of the Empire, found it necessary to suspend work a few months, more or less, on account of the condition of the country, it is said that they sent an English sub-superintendent down to Amozoc, to take charge of the material on hand in that vicinity. With perfectly Anglican simplicity, he housed all the iron rails, and left the chairs and spikes out-of-doors. It is hardly necessary to say that on the resumption of work not a chair or spike was to be found, and I may add that the price of steel goods manufactured at Amozoc had mean time fallen to exactly the cost of the workmanship, no charge for material being reckoned by the enterprising Amozocians in their estimates of the expenses of carrying on the business.

The leaving of the chairs and spikes out of doors was of course an absurdity, but that it was quite necessary to house the rails is demonstrated by the fact that they used to disappear every night, when left out of doors and not fastened down. One day an officer of the company was riding some twelve miles distant from the track, when he saw a countryman driving an ox team, with one of the full length T rails, weighing sixty pounds to the foot, dragging on the ground behind them. Demanding to know what he was doing with the rail the fellow replied, with a shrug of the shoulders:

"Oh, just going to build a puntacita" (i. e., a little bridge.)

"But that rail belongs to the railway company; don't you know that?"

"Oh, no, Señor, I did not know who it belonged to. Do you represent the company?" "Of course I do, and I want that rail?"

"Very well; if the rail belongs to you, I don't want it. Take it and welcome, Señor. Buenos tarde Señor!" and coolly unhitching the oxen from the rail, he politely lifted his hat and walked off with his animals, leaving the rail lying there, twelve miles from the track, for the owners to get it back as best they could; it did not appear to worry him a bit.

There are no silver mines in the vicinity, but the diligences were formerly stopped pretty regularly, and the supply of silver for ornamenting the steel work, appears to be still sufficient to meet the demand of the trade.

His Excellency, Governor Romero, and staff, accompanied us in his private coach from Puebla as far as Tepeaca, an old Aztec city nine leagues from Puebla. Here we stopped for breakfast, and parted with the Governor and his aids with mutual expressions of regret. The Governor had done all that any man could possibly do, to show Mr. Seward attention and respect, and made the stay of the party in the State of Puebla a pleasant one, and he will long be remembered with gratitude.

Tepeaca has a history, if we had had time to stop and look it up. We breakfasted in a fonda opposite the grand plaza. In this plaza, in front of the church, stands a tall, square tower of brick or adobe, painted white, with a red tile roof, arched port-hole-like openings near the top, and a sun-dial painted on the side perpendicularly, according to the Aztec custom, instead of horizontally as ours used to be. On the dial is an inscription to this effect: "Here I am, and there is no mistake about me." This was a fortress of the Aztecs, and being very curious, the Spaniards did not destroy it, but preserved it as it now stands in perfection; thank them for so much at any rate! It was doubtless a good thing in the days of bows and arrows, but a common six-pounder field-piece would have knocked it into a cocked hat in no time.

The Spaniards, in advancing up into the country from Vera Cruz, had a mare which they valued highly. Near Tepeaca the mare got loose, and ran away to the Aztec camp. The Indians determined to catch her alive, regarding her as the next thing to the God of the Spaniards, and one of the greatest contributors to their success. So they chased her on foot until many of them—so tradition says—dropped down dead from heat and fatigue, but their efforts were unavailing, for the Spaniards corralled her after all.

In the late war between France and Mexico, the noted guerrilla chieftain, General Caravajal—who accompanied us from Mexico to Puebla, Tlaxcala and Cholula—fought many minor battles along the road with the invaders, and always cleaned out his opponents. He is the very impersonation of the quick, adroit, brave, and withal patriotic guerrilla commander, and for such warfare has probably no equal on the continent. When the French were encamped at Tepeaca, he made a bet of five hundred dollars a side with Rojas, that he would with his small band of guerrillas, cut his way into the plaza and kill some of the French, before he (Rojas) could do the same with his force. The first party to kill a Frenchman in the plaza was to take the money. General Caravajal actually rode at full gallop directly into the plaza at day-break, killed several French officers in front of the commander's quarters, and rode off again unscathed, winning the money. He looks like a good, plain, honest American farmer of forty-five years of age, and is the last man in the world you would take for the hero of so many daring and recklessly brave exploits.

We were now in the maguey or aloe district of Mexico. This plant does not thrive well in the tierre caliente, but at the elevation of six to ten thousand feet above the sea, in this latitude is seen in its greatest perfection. Its home is the great valley and central plains of Mexico, though it is found as far north as Arizona. The whole country is covered with it in this vicinity. The houses are thatched with its leaves; ropes, matting, and cloth of a coarse texture are made from it; in fact, the common people are born, live, and get drunk and die on it in some form. Along here it is less used for making pulque than between Mexico and Puebla, and we saw thousands on thousands of plants with the center or flower stalk shooting up ready to burst into blossom. Each stalk is about the size of a common telegraph pole—perhaps three or four feet less in average height—and resembles—before the blossoms, have put forth—a gigantic asparagus shoot, in color and form.

The palm, of the stumpy, worthless variety known in Texas and Arizona as the "Spanish bayonet," is found here, covering all the hill-sides, and scattered along the roads. The mountains begin to lose their appearance of utter barrenness, and are clothed in dense chaparal or fair-sized juniper, cedar, oak, pine, and cypress trees; we were coming within the influence of the moist air of the Gulf of Mexico.

John Butler, Mr. Seward's dark servant, never had any patience with the Mexican servants with whom he came in contact, and each day's experience in the country confirmed his prejudices and deepened his convictions. As a rule he insisted that they were bound to understand English, and did understand it in spite of all their protestations. "Here blast you, set this trunk right down there I tell you, and I want you to understand it!" he would exclaim. The servants would of course comprehend from his gestures what he desired to have done, and comply with his command; whereupon he would turn to some of the party and remark triumphantly:

 
0-Sister Republic - Needle Palm p.448.jpg

THE NEDDLE PALM.

 

"There, cuss their yellow hides, didn't I tell you they could understand English if they only had a mind to?"

But occasionally he would get hold of a customer who would persist in not understanding him, and after a little trifling his Christian meekness would give way, and his wrath find vent in words, forcible and to the point. At a little village where we stopped to lunch, Mr. Seward told him to go and buy a hundred cigars for the guard. He started off and soon after, hearing high words going on in a wayside shop, I looked in to learn the cause of the row. "Here Colonel, come in here please, and tell this stupid thing that I want 'em all!" he exclaimed as he caught sight of me.

"Todos Señor? Todos?" replied the woman at the counter, with an expression of anxiety and doubt on her face, as she turned appealingly to me.

"No, cuss you no! I said all, didn't I? Don't try to run no todos on me; I want 'em all!" shouted John, seizing the box and pulling it from her reluctant hand. "Blast her, she is trying to retail them to me by the todos, when I told her more than forty times over, that I wanted 'em all!"

I explained to the irate descendant of Ham, that todos and all, were synonymous terms in the two languages.

"Then why did'nt she say so at once, and not keep me here fooling all day?" was his emphatic rejoinder as he threw down the two dollars demanded and left the shop, shaking his head wrathfully, and evidently more disgusted with the country and everything in it than ever before.

We staid over night at Palmar, an old Indian town twenty leagues from Puebla, and lodged at a fonda. There is nothing at Palmar worth describing—at least I saw nothing.

The splendidly uniformed commander of the Rural Guard of Puebla, mounted on a fleet little bay horse, all life and fire, with saddle, bridle, stirrups, holsters, etc., etc., one mass of beautifully wrought silver, accompanied us from Puebla to Orizaba. At intervals of about twenty miles, the guard of twenty-five to fifty men, all similarly mounted and presenting a magnificent appearance as they dashed along at full speed by the side of the coach, were changed; but this officer rode with us all the way, his fiery, little steed never flagging or halting to rest for a moment from morning to night. The road was fearfully dusty, and the coach mules, coach-wheels, and the horses of the guard, kept us in such a cloud of the sacred soil all the way, that no single individual was recognizable after we had gone a mile or two.

I wish I could present my readers with a picture of that peculiar and characteristic cortege, as we swept along the road from Puebla to Orizaba. Every color of the rainbow flashed in the costumes of the guard or the trappings of the horses. The men were wrapped to the eyes in scarfs and serapes to guard their faces and throats from the—to them—extreme cold, though we found it too warm to wear overcoats when sitting still, in the open coach. All the natives of this country thus protect themselves against the air, even in the warmest seasons, and the women you meet on the road have their faces, in most cases, all covered except the eyes, with their blue or black rebosas.

We left Palmar at 8 a. m., December 24th, for Orizaba, having only sixteen Spanish leagues to go. For the first six leagues the country was dusty, dry as the Californias during the dry season, and uninteresting. Then all in an instant the scene changed as if by magic. At a sharp turn in the road we came upon the brink of a great cañon, like that of the American River above Colfax on the Central Pacific Railway in California. The sides of the cañon were wooded and green, and very precipitous. Down at the bottom of this cañon, from twelve hundred to eighteen hundred feet below us, we could see many great cotton-laden wagons drawn by twenty to thirty mules each, coming up from Vera Cruz, the weary animals straining every nerve to pull the heavy loads up the zigzag road which winds like a serpent up the almost perpendicular face of the mountain.

We stood at last, at the dividing line between the great Central Plateau or elevated Table Land of Mexico, and the Tierra Caliente of the Gulf coast. The gay cavalcade of horsemen who formed our escort, dashed down the steep declivity at a gallop, and the coach, with breaks hard set, went down with a speed like that of a railway train, turning the sharp angles of the road without an instant's slackening up, and rocking and swaying like a ship in a storm until we were at the bottom. We congratulated ourselves on the experience, and all agreed that we had never seen anything finer, or enjoyed a more exhilarating ride in our lives.

A few minute's pause to rest our panting animals, and then we ascended a little hill, and instead of finding ourselves in an open plain as we had anticipated, looked down on another and greater cañon, which by its size made the first seem a mere bagatelle, dwarfed the great Barranca of Beltran by comparison, and would even challenge and win admiration, side by side with the Great Yosemite, the wonder of the world in our day and generation.

Slope back the walls of rock which form the sides; of the Yosemite, so as to make them a little less than perpendicular, clothe them with low, green chaparral to hide the blue-grey stone, plant a little village with an old white church like that in the "Heart of the Andes," in the center of the narrow, green valley where Hutchings' house stands, and look down on the picture from Inspiration Point, and you have the greater of Las Cumbres, as we looked down into it on that bright, sunny afternoon of the 24th of December, 1869. By Heaven! it was a sight worth coming all these thousands of miles by sea and land, to look upon!

Away we went again, down, down, down, as the eagle fixes his wings and glides swiftly from his airy height in the mountains into the valley below. In half an hour more all had changed around us, and we stood again amid the scenes and surrounded by the rankly luxuriant vegetation of the tropics. We had descended six thousand feet within ten miles, and the land of the aloe and maize was behind us. Around us was the banana, the orange, sugar-cane and coffee, and the thousand glorious flowers of the tropics, high mountains—green-clad and glorious—on either hand, and before us, Orizaba in all his unspeakable majesty.

Through the green valley, skirted with Indian villages of low cone-thatched and open-sided huts, we drove at full speed for an hour, and then halted at a village a league only from the quaint old city of Orizaba, where we found carriages in waiting, and the authorities standing ready to receive Mr. Seward and escort him to our lodgings in the town, as the guest of the State of Vera Cruz within whose boundaries we had just entered.