Six Months In Mexico/Chapter 19

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the States, so he was a father to the grand total of one hundred children. There is another man living in Mexico who has had two wives, and who has living forty-five children. Down in a small village, out from Vera Cruz, is a father with sixty-eight children. Allowing the small average of five to a family, one can see how numerous the grandchildren would be. I am acquainted with a gentleman whose mother is but thirteen-and-a-half years older than he, and she has eighteen more of a family. It is a blessed thing that, the natives are able to live in a cane hut and exist on beans and rice, else the lists of deaths by starvation would be something dreadful.

 

 

CHAPTER XIX.

 

A DAY'S TRIP ON A STREET CAR.

 

After being annoyed by the porter for two hours, who feared we would miss the train, our party of two at four o'clock in the morning started for Jalapa. Even at this unholy hour a large crowd had gathered at the station, where they busied themselves packing their luggage aboard. Every woman had one male escort, some several.

The Mexicans surveyed myself and my chaperone in amazement, but I defied their gaze and showed them that a free American girl can accommodate herself to circumstances without the aid of a man. The mozo who had carried the bothersome sachel demanded "un peso" (one dollar), which I very promptly refused, and gave him the smallest change from my purse—twenty-five cents. The seats run lengthwise, like in an ordinary street car, and a Frenchman sitting opposite, who witnessed our little transaction and my very limited knowledge of Spanish, remarked: "Well, mademoiselle, you are smarter than I. A man charged me one dollar and a half just for the same service that one rendered you, and, although I speak Spanish, I had to pay it."

The occupants of the car were the Frenchman and his wife, a musician, wife and sister-in-law, a Mexican and Frenchman solitaire, as they say here, and ourselves. It was far from daylight, so, making themselves as comfortable as possible, they all went to sleep. The Mexican women were dressed in plain black, with black veils and very high hats; they carried little black hand sachels, wore no gloves, and their finger-nails, easily a half-inch longer than the finger, were cut in the bird-claw shape then so fashionable. The Frenchwoman did not look very pretty, as she slept with her mouth open. She was dressed in red silk, with red hat and veil, yellow gloves and linen duster. She was very fleshy, and had, besides a hand sachel, a cage in which were two brown birds dotted with red, which they informed us later were French canaries. Her husband was about six feet three inches, and weighed undoubtedly three hundred pounds. The solitaire Frenchman was bald-headed, and had white side-whiskers, which stood out at right angles to the length of one foot; his whiskers were the largest part of him. The Mexican had a very red nose, extremely thick lips, and was rather effeminate-looking. The married Mexican looked exactly like a jolly Irishman—something very extraordinary. After I had finished this inspection by the dim light of a lamp which hung in the center of the car, I too went to sleep, and knew no more till the train stopped at the journey's end, a few miles out from Vera Cruz.

It ended the train's journey, but not ours, for the rest of the trip is made by tramway. The cars are very high, have four seats, and the rays of the sun are excluded by a tin roof and canvas sides. Six mules do the hauling, and two cars—first and second-class—are run each way daily. They run on a regular iron track, as it was once the intention to run steam cars here. A great deal of freight is hauled in this manner. The village surrounding this station is entirely composed of straw huts. We were soon seated in the tram car, our number increased by the guardsmen, who, as the old saying goes, were armed to the teeth. A bell rang, and off we started with a rush, the second-class car keeping close to us. Our happiness would have been supreme had not the driver lashed his mules continually. The scenery was fine. The tall, graceful palms, the cocoa trees, the thousands upon thousands of beautiful orchids and wild flowers, the many-colored birds, some piping heavenly strains, others taking their morning bath in the running stream which crept along the wayside with a dreamy murmur; the delightfully fragrant, balmy air, everything seemed to lend its aid to make the scene one of indescribable loveliness. It was interesting to note the homes and home life of the natives in this rural spot; their straw houses are built simply by setting trees for corner posts and sticking the cane into the ground around them. The roof, of cane, grass, or palm leaves, always runs up to a high peak. Generally every house has a porch and more rooms than one, but never any other floor than the ground. Sometimes they exhibit good taste in building and one house will have several rooms, two or more porches and pretty peaks and curves which one would think impossible to make of cane; the furniture does not cost much, it consists entirely of petates; they furnish the tables, the beds, the chairs, and, suspended by a rope, make a comfortable swinging cradle for the babies. This useful piece of furniture is nothing more or less than a mat, woven by themselves in plain or colored straw; these people, no difference how poor, own burros, dogs, chickens, pigs, and other domestic animals, which do not occupy outside or separate houses, but live, sleep, and eat right in among them. A pig is as much at home in the kitchen or parlor as in a mud puddle. It is no uncommon sight to see sleeping children bound on one side by a pig, on the other by a sheep, and at their feet either a dog or a goat.

Dinner was secured at an inn situated midway on the line. The landlord taxed each passenger one dollar for the frugal repast, and even then did not seem satisfied. The rays of the sun were beating fiercely down when the travelers again boarded the tram car. One woman took from her sachel a cross and prayer book, and read herself to sleep. The other Mexican girl leaned her head on the back of the seat and went to sleep. The big Frenchwoman turned her back to the side of the car and putting her knees up on the seat she, too, went to sleep. Her husband by this time was nodding slowly and soothingly, while the other Frenchman was trying to tickle him by running a straw down his back, but at length he tired of efforts unrewarded and sat down and went to sleep. When I looked at the two Mexicans they were asleep, one with a half-smoked cigarette in his mouth. The driver had tied the lines around the brake lock and was in the midst of the land of nod. Even the two holders of defensive weapons, who were there to guard us from all sorts of imaginary evils, were so sound asleep that a cannon shot would not wake them. Even the little birds had tucked their heads carefully under their wings and, maybe, were dreaming. It was all so comical that I glanced at my little mother to find she was bravely trying to resist the sleepy god. She gave me a drowsy, sympathetic smile, while I buried my face in my light shawl and laughed just like I used to do in church when I would see anything funny, and my laughter was just as hearty and hard to control. The mules had long ago gone to sleep, but still managed to move slightly. The situation was too overpowering, and I must confess that after putting myself into as small a knot as possible I deposited my entire body on the seat and soon went sound asleep.

When I opened my eyes I found all the rest awake and the married Mexican preparing to shoot birds. The driver was certainly the most obliging fellow in the world. When anything was shot he stopped the car and waited until the other got off and procured his game. The Mexican shot at everything which was living, except the trees and flowers, but he got off for nothing but squirrels, and the heartlessness of it made us wish they had a humane society here, for many of the poor birds were disabled, and the thought that they must live on in pain for many days was not a pleasant one.

Our route lay over the old diligence road that connected Mexico with the end of the world. Cortes, the French and the Americans all traveled over it. We crossed the old national bridge and saw the ruins of one of the forts built by Cortes. When the Mexican tired of his killing sport the three ladies joined him in a game of cards, which the passengers and driver watched with absorbing interest, while the mules resumed their nap. I was bored beyond endurance by the listlessness of the company, and was not sorry when their attention was attracted by a cart drawn by four oxen, which was descending a high hill in the distance.

The cards were put aside, and they began to talk about the hacienda, which was clearly in view, and the beautiful mansion, cathedral, and numerous homes for the laborers, which held a commanding position on top of the same high hill down which the cart was coming. When we reached the brow of the hill, by looking back, we could see a white streak which separated sky and earth, and were told it was the sea at Vera Cruz, sixty miles away. The cart stopped at this point, where the motive power was renewed by fresh mules, and its passengers—three women—kissed and hugged the trio of Mexicans in our party. The hacienda, owned by our fellow travelers, once belonged to Santa Anna. When we resumed the journey it was drawing on toward evening, and I began to view the beautiful surroundings with but a lazy interest; the queer fences, built of mud and topped with cactus plant, and hedges formed of beautiful palms, fifty or one hundred years old, commanded but a passing glance. Pretty little homes, lovely gardens and sugar factories had ceased to be of interest, so we settled down to rest until the Frenchman stretched out his arm and ejaculated "Jalapa!"

In a moment all weariness vanished, and we were fresh as in the morning. I wish I could show you Jalapa just as I saw it then. It nestled down in the valley like a kitten in a cushioned basket. The white houses gleamed like silver through the green trees, while the surrounding mountains were enveloped in a light bluish mist which grew black as the distance increased. The sun had just slipped behind one, leaving its golden trail, the black and white clouds, the misty mountains all mixed in one harmonious mass. We entered the town with a rush, the driver blowing his tin horn to warn the inhabitants of our arrival. A large crowd had collected at the station, but only two hotel runners were there to bother us, and as all the other passengers were citizens they clung to us faithfully. The Frenchman said he would go with us to the hotel and make all arrangements. He took us to what he thought was the best, and asked the woman the price. "One dollar and fifty cents a day," she said, and as we were satisfied he bade us good-bye, and left us to the tender mercies of the Mexicans. The hotel was certainly very clean and nice. In the courtyard were trees and flowers. A porch paved with brick tile surrounded this, and was hung at every available space with bird cages. The building, only one-story, was painted white, with trimmings of blue. The overhanging roof was down low, and the rafters, which are never hidden, were painted a light blue. The supper was undoubtedly the best we had eaten in Mexico, and it immediately put a warm place in our heart for the little superintendent, who lived awhile in the States and there learned to cook.

Jalapa is at present the capital of the State of Vera Cruz; the capital business is very different here from what it is in the States; there, once a capital, always a capital; here, every new Governor locates the capital where it best suits his convenience, if that should be in the forest. Orizaba and Vera Cruz have both served repeated terms, but Jalapa made a successful run and got in at the last convention. It is a very old town, and not only noted for the beauty of its women, who possess light hair and eyes, and beautiful complexions, but for the beauty of its location. It is known as the flower garden of Mexico, and the old familiar saying was, "See Jalapa and die," as it was supposed to contain everything worth seeing; but at present it is simply a beautiful, sleepy paradise, reminding one of a pretty child in death—quiet and still, almost buried in a wealth of flowers; the government buildings and churches are very fine, but the houses are only one story; they are built with low, red- tiled, overhanging roofs, and are tastily painted. Some pink houses have light-blue overhangers and vice versa, while white houses have blue or pink, and the yellow have blue, pink, and white trimmings.

Every street is very irregular, narrow in some places, wide in others, and as crooked as the path of a sinner. One can walk for a day and imagine they are on the same street all the time, or on a different one every thirty feet, just as fancy dictates.

One would willingly spend a lifetime on this "spot of earth let down from heaven," as the Mexicans speak of it. Away over hills and ravines can be seen the great Cofre de Perote, thirteen thousand five hundred and fifty two feet high. A great mass of white porphyry, in the shape of a chest, gleams from its dark side. From this it derived its name, "Cofre." Still above all, as though endeavoring to reach heaven, is the snowy peak of Orizaba. The former is within a day's travel from the town, and well deserves a visit. To the northeast, thirty miles distant, is the lovely village of Misantla, noted for its beautiful scenery and Aztec temple and pyramid. A little further north is another pyramid, the finest and oldest in Mexico. Jilatepec is only seven miles away. It is a lovely Indian village, peculiarly situated at the bottom of a deep valley. Several foreign families are located at the flower town of Cuatepec, owners of some of its far-famed coffee plantations.

Jalapa has a population of 12,400, and an elevation of 4,335 feet. The climate is cool, the soil fertile, and the town never visited by contagious diseases. All around are plantations of coffee, tobacco, vanilla, cotton, maize, and—jalapa the well-known old medicine which was a remedy for every known ill to which flesh is heir to. Jalapa is pronounced as though it were spelled with an h, with a soft sound to the a—Halapah. There are many cotton mills around the suburbs that are well worth the time it takes to visit them. We visited one owned by our polite French friend. The building once sheltered nuns, and the garden which surrounds it shows what it might once have been, but is now one tangled mass of climbing roses, lemon, orange and coffee trees, and numerous flowers for which I know no name. At the back, from a little stone turret, one can view a smooth green plain divided by a silvery stream—known by the inappropriate name of the Dry River, while it was never known to go dry—which flows on to make that ponderous machinery its slave, as it turns around with almost diabolical glee. Men and women do the work. They receive from one real to seventy-five cents a day. The machinery all comes from England.

Not far from the main Cathedral are the ruins of the Convent of San Francisco. It is easily three hundred years old, and is of immense size. Over the door of the chapel part we could trace "Property of King Philip, of Spain," while cut in gilt letters on a black plate, just a little nearer the edge of the building, is the inscription, "Land of Benito Juarez." The baths are now used for the benefit of the public, costing only six cents. The open swimming baths are used for horses and dogs, the former costing three cents, the latter gratis, providing the canine accompanies the horse. The public laundry is another place of interest. It is situated in the center of the town, built of brick, with stationary porous stones for washboards. The city charges nothing for the use of the place.

When evening came I called my old landlady up and offered her three dollars for the day. "No" she said, "I want six dollars." I was astonished, but managed—with a mixture of English and Spanish—to tell her I would pay no more. She went to her husband and he made out a bill "payable by Nellie Bly for two—supper, all night, coffee and breakfast, six dollars." I told her it was all wrong, and added that she was bad, because I did not know a Spanish word for cheat, but I wanted to get it as near as possible. At last I tried to drive some sense into her head, and explained that the bill for one day for two was three dollars." "Si hay" (pronounced "see eye"), she asserted. "Well, I came last night, was here till this afternoon; one day, eh?" "No, two," was her astonishing reply. "Well, madame, twenty-four hours is one day in the United States, and if it isn't so here, I will start it now." I gave her three dollars; and, remembering the old adage that "he who fights and runs away lives to fight another day," and having no desire to leave my bones in Jalapa or go to Vera Cruz with a map drawn on my face with her finger nails, returned to my room and left her to vent her rage on her husband or servants, as she wished. But she was not going to be beaten by a "gringo," so she sent for the Frenchman who brought me there. He rapped on my door, and asked what was wrong. I told him the old lady was not only seeing double, but counted everything by the second multiplication table. He laughed, and said she thought I was a "gringo," and she could cheat me. He soon made her see clearer, and we remained the following night and had supper for seventy-five cents. I had learned pretty well how to make all arrangements first, and proposed in the future not to drink a glass of water until I knew the price. I had no intention of allowing a Yankee girl to be cheated by a Mexican, man or woman.

The next morning we started on our return trip to Vera Cruz. We looked forward to it with pleasure, as the former day spent on a street car was one of the most pleasant and unique experiences of my life. We had very few passengers down, the conductor, two soldiers, driver,

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