WONDERFUL ADVENTURES OF MRS. SEACOLE IN MANY LANDS
EDITED BY W. J. S.
WITH AN INTRODUCTORY PREFACE
W. H. RUSSELL, ESQ.,
THE "TIMES" CORRESPONDENT IN THE CRIMEA.
LONDON: JAMES BLACKWOOD, PATERNOSTER ROW. 1857.
LONDON: THOMAS HARRILD, PRINTER, 11, SALISBURY SQUARE, FLEET STREET.
DEDICATED, BY PERMISSION,
MAJOR-GENERAL LORD ROKEBY, K.C.B.,
BY HIS LORDSHIP'S
HUMBLE AND MOST GRATEFUL SERVANT,
TO THE READER.
I should have thought that no preface would have been required to introduce Mrs. Seacole to the British public, or to recommend a book which must, from the circumstances in which the subject of it was placed, be unique in literature.
If singleness of heart, true charity, and Christian works; if trials and sufferings, dangers and perils, encountered boldly by a helpless woman on her errand of mercy in the camp and in the battle-field, can excite sympathy or move curiosity, Mary Seacole will have many friends and many readers.
She is no Anna Comnena, who presents us with a verbose history, but a plain truth-speaking woman, who has lived an adventurous life amid scenes which have never yet found a historian among the actors on the stage where they passed.
I have witnessed her devotion and her courage; I have already borne testimony to her services to all who needed them. She is the first who has redeemed the name of "sutler" from the suspicion of worthlessness, mercenary baseness, and plunder; and I trust that England will not forget one who nursed her sick, who sought out her wounded to aid and succour them, and who performed the last offices for some of her illustrious dead.
W. H. RUSSELL.
My Birth and Parentage—Early Tastes and Travels—Marriage, and Widowhood 1
Struggles for Life—The Cholera in Jamaica—I leave Kingston for the Isthmus of Panama—Chagres, Navy Bay, and Gatun—Life in Panama—Up the River Chagres to Gorgona and Cruces 6
My Reception at the Independent Hotel—A Cruces Table d'Hote—Life in Cruces—Amusements of the Crowds—A Novel Four-post Bed 17
An Unwelcome Visitor in Cruces—The Cholera—Success of the Yellow Doctress—Fearful Scene at the Mule-owner's—The Burying Parties—The Cholera attacks me 23
American Sympathy—I take an Hotel in Cruces—My Customers—Lola Montes—Miss Hayes and the Bishop—Gambling in Cruces—Quarrels amongst the Travellers—New Granadan Military—The Thieves of Cruces—A Narrow Escape 34
Migration to Gorgona—Farewell Dinners and Speeches—A Building Speculation—Life in Gorgona—Sympathy with American Slaves—Dr. Casey in Trouble—Floods and Fires—Yankee Independence and Freedom 46
The Yellow Fever in Jamaica—My Experience of Death-bed Scenes—I leave again for Navy Bay, and open a Store there—I am attacked with the Gold Fever, and start for Escribanos—Life in the Interior of the Republic of New Granada—A Revolutionary Conspiracy on a small scale—The Dinner Delicacies of Escribanos—Journey up the Palmilla River—A Few Words on the Present Aspect of Affairs on the Isthmus of Panama 59
I long to join the British Army before Sebastopol—My Wanderings about London for that purpose—How I failed—Establishment of the Firm of "Day and Martin"—I Embark for Turkey 73
Voyage to Constantinople—Malta—Gibraltar—Constantinople, and what I thought of it—Visit to Scutari Hospital—Miss Nightingale 82
"Jew Johnny"—I Start for Balaclava—Kindness of my old Friends—On Board the "Medora"—My Life on Shore—The Sick Wharf 92
Alarms in the Harbour—Getting the Stores on Shore—Robbery by Night and Day—The Predatory Tribes of Balaclava—Activity of the Authorities—We obtain leave to erect our Store, and fix upon Spring Hill as its Site—The Turkish Pacha—The Flood—Our Carpenters—I become an English Schoolmistress Abroad 102
The British Hotel—Domestic Difficulties—Our Enemies—The Russian Rats—Adventures in Search of a Cat—Light-fingered Zouaves—Crimean Thieves—Powdering a Horse 113
My Work in the Crimea 124
My Customers at the British Hotel 135
My First Glimpse of War—Advance of my Turkish Friends on Kamara—Visitors to the Camp—Miss Nightingale—Mons. Soyer and the Cholera—Summer in the Crimea—"Thirsty Souls"—Death busy in the Trenches 146
Under Fire on the fatal 18th of June—Before the Redan—At the Cemetery—The Armistice—Deaths at Head-quarters—Depression in the Camp—Plenty in the Crimea—The Plague of Flies—Under Fire at the Battle of the Tchernaya—Work on the Field—My Patients 154
Inside Sebastopol—The Last Bombardment of Sebastopol—On Cathcart's Hill—Rumours in the Camp—The Attack on the Malakhoff—The Old Work again—A Sunday Excursion—Inside "Our" City—I am taken for a Spy, and thereat lose my Temper—I Visit the Redan, etc.—My Share of the Plunder 167
Holiday in the Camp—A New Enemy, Time—Amusements in the Crimea—My share in them—Dinner at Spring Hill—At the Races—Christmas Day in the British Hotel—New Year's Day in the Hospital 177
New Year in the Crimea—Good News—The Armistice—Barter with the Russians—War and Peace—Tidings of Peace—Excursions into the Interior of the Crimea—To Simpheropol, Baktchiserai, etc.—The Troops begin to leave the Crimea—Friends' Farewells—The Cemeteries—We remove from Spring Hill to Balaclava—Alarming Sacrifice of our Stock—A last Glimpse of Sebastopol—Home! 188
ADVENTURES OF MRS. SEACOLE IN MANY LANDS.
MY BIRTH AND PARENTAGE—EARLY TASTES AND TRAVELS—MARRIAGE, AND WIDOWHOOD.
I was born in the town of Kingston, in the island of Jamaica, some time in the present century. As a female, and a widow, I may be well excused giving the precise date of this important event. But I do not mind confessing that the century and myself were both young together, and that we have grown side by side into age and consequence. I am a Creole, and have good Scotch blood coursing in my veins. My father was a soldier, of an old Scotch family; and to him I often trace my affection for a camp-life, and my sympathy with what I have heard my friends call "the pomp, pride, and circumstance of glorious war." Many people have also traced to my Scotch blood that energy and activity which are not always found in the Creole race, and which have carried me to so many varied scenes: and perhaps they are right. I have often heard the term "lazy Creole" applied to my country people; but I am sure I do not know what it is to be indolent. All my life long I have followed the impulse which led me to be up and doing; and so far from resting idle anywhere, I have never wanted inclination to rove, nor will powerful enough to find a way to carry out my wishes. That these qualities have led me into many countries, and brought me into some strange and amusing adventures, the reader, if he or she has the patience to get through this book, will see. Some people, indeed, have called me quite a female Ulysses. I believe that they intended it as a compliment; but from my experience of the Greeks, I do not consider it a very flattering one.
It is not my intention to dwell at any length upon the recollections of my childhood. My mother kept a boarding-house in Kingston, and was, like very many of the Creole women, an admirable doctress; in high repute with the officers of both services, and their wives, who were from time to time stationed at Kingston. It was very natural that I should inherit her tastes; and so I had from early youth a yearning for medical knowledge and practice which has never deserted me. When I was a very young child I was taken by an old lady, who brought me up in her household among her own grandchildren, and who could scarcely have shown me more kindness had I been one of them; indeed, I was so spoiled by my kind patroness that, but for being frequently with my mother, I might very likely have grown up idle and useless. But I saw so much of her, and of her patients, that the ambition to become a doctress early took firm root in my mind; and I was very young when I began to make use of the little knowledge I had acquired from watching my mother, upon a great sufferer—my doll. I have noticed always what actors children are. If you leave one alone in a room, how soon it clears a little stage; and, making an audience out of a few chairs and stools, proceeds to act its childish griefs and blandishments upon its doll. So I also made good use of my dumb companion and confidante; and whatever disease was most prevalent in Kingston, be sure my poor doll soon contracted it. I have had many medical triumphs in later days, and saved some valuable lives; but I really think that few have given me more real gratification than the rewarding glow of health which my fancy used to picture stealing over my patient's waxen face after long and precarious illness.
Before long it was very natural that I should seek to extend my practice; and so I found other patients in the dogs and cats around me. Many luckless brutes were made to simulate diseases which were raging among their owners, and had forced down their reluctant throats the remedies which I deemed most likely to suit their supposed complaints. And after a time I rose still higher in my ambition; and despairing of finding another human patient, I proceeded to try my simples and essences upon—myself.
When I was about twelve years old I was more frequently at my mother's house, and used to assist her in her duties; very often sharing with her the task of attending upon invalid officers or their wives, who came to her house from the adjacent camp at Up-Park, or the military station at Newcastle.
As I grew into womanhood, I began to indulge that longing to travel which will never leave me while I have health and vigour. I was never weary of tracing upon an old map the route to England; and never followed with my gaze the stately ships homeward bound without longing to be in them, and see the blue hills of Jamaica fade into the distance. At that time it seemed most improbable that these girlish wishes should be gratified; but circumstances, which I need not explain, enabled me to accompany some relatives to England while I was yet a very young woman.
I shall never forget my first impressions of London. Of course, I am not going to bore the reader with them; but they are as vivid now as though the year 18— (I had very nearly let my age slip then) had not been long ago numbered with the past. Strangely enough, some of the most vivid of my recollections are the efforts of the London street-boys to poke fun at my and my companion's complexion. I am only a little brown—a few shades duskier than the brunettes whom you all admire so much; but my companion was very dark, and a fair (if I can apply the term to her) subject for their rude wit. She was hot-tempered, poor thing! and as there were no policemen to awe the boys and turn our servants' heads in those days, our progress through the London streets was sometimes a rather chequered one.
I remained in England, upon the occasion of my first visit, about a year; and then returned to Kingston. Before long I again started for London, bringing with me this time a large stock of West Indian preserves and pickles for sale. After remaining two years here, I again started home; and on the way my life and adventures were very nearly brought to a premature conclusion. Christmas-day had been kept very merrily on board our ship the "Velusia;" and on the following day a fire broke out in the hold. I dare say it would have resisted all the crew's efforts to put it out, had not another ship appeared in sight; upon which the fire quietly allowed itself to be extinguished. Although considerably alarmed, I did not lose my senses; but during the time when the contest between fire and water was doubtful, I entered into an amicable arrangement with the ship's cook, whereby, in consideration of two pounds—which I was not, however, to pay until the crisis arrived—he agreed to lash me on to a large hen-coop.
Before I had been long in Jamaica I started upon other trips, many of them undertaken with a view to gain. Thus I spent some time in New Providence, bringing home with me a large collection of handsome shells and rare shell-work, which created quite a sensation in Kingston, and had a rapid sale; I visited also Hayti and Cuba. But I hasten onward in my narrative.
Returned to Kingston, I nursed my old indulgent patroness in her last long illness. After she died, in my arms, I went to my mother's house, where I stayed, making myself useful in a variety of ways, and learning a great deal of Creole medicinal art, until I couldn't find courage to say "no" to a certain arrangement timidly proposed by Mr. Seacole, but married him, and took him down to Black River, where we established a store. Poor man! he was very delicate; and before I undertook the charge of him, several doctors had expressed most unfavourable opinions of his health. I kept him alive by kind nursing and attention as long as I could; but at last he grew so ill that we left Black River, and returned to my mother's house at Kingston. Within a month of our arrival there he died. This was my first great trouble, and I felt it bitterly. For days I never stirred—lost to all that passed around me in a dull stupor of despair. If you had told me that the time would soon come when I should remember this sorrow calmly, I should not have believed it possible: and yet it was so. I do not think that we hot-blooded Creoles sorrow less for showing it so impetuously; but I do think that the sharp edge of our grief wears down sooner than theirs who preserve an outward demeanour of calmness, and nurse their woe secretly in their hearts.
STRUGGLES FOR LIFE—THE CHOLERA IN JAMAICA—I LEAVE KINGSTON FOR THE ISTHMUS OF PANAMA—CHAGRES, NAVY BAY, AND GATUN—LIFE IN PANAMA—UP THE RIVER CHAGRES TO GORGONA AND CRUCES.
I had one other great grief to master—the loss of my mother, and then I was left alone to battle with the world as best I might. The struggles which it cost me to succeed in life were sometimes very trying; nor have they ended yet. But I have always turned a bold front to fortune, and taken, and shall continue to take, as my brave friends in the army and navy have shown me how, "my hurts before." Although it was no easy thing for a widow to make ends meet, I never allowed myself to know what repining or depression was, and so succeeded in gaining not only my daily bread, but many comforts besides from the beginning. Indeed, my experience of the world—it is not finished yet, but I do not think it will give me reason to change my opinion—leads me to the conclusion that it is by no means the hard bad world which some selfish people would have us believe it. It may be as my editor says—
"That gently comes the world to those That are cast in gentle mould;"
hinting at the same time, politely, that the rule may apply to me personally. And perhaps he is right, for although I was always a hearty, strong woman—plain-spoken people might say stout—I think my heart is soft enough.
How slowly and gradually I succeeded in life, need not be told at length. My fortunes underwent the variations which befall all. Sometimes I was rich one day, and poor the next. I never thought too exclusively of money, believing rather that we were born to be happy, and that the surest way to be wretched is to prize it overmuch. Had I done so, I should have mourned over many a promising speculation proving a failure, over many a pan of preserves or guava jelly burnt in the making; and perhaps lost my mind when the great fire of 1843, which devastated Kingston, burnt down my poor home. As it was, I very nearly lost my life, for I would not leave my house until every chance of saving it had gone, and it was wrapped in flames. But, of course, I set to work again in a humbler way, and rebuilt my house by degrees, and restocked it, succeeding better than before; for I had gained a reputation as a skilful nurse and doctress, and my house was always full of invalid officers and their wives from Newcastle, or the adjacent Up-Park Camp. Sometimes I had a naval or military surgeon under my roof, from whom I never failed to glean instruction, given, when they learned my love for their profession, with a readiness and kindness I am never likely to forget. Many of these kind friends are alive now. I met with some when my adventures had carried me to the battle-fields of the Crimea; and to those whose eyes may rest upon these pages I again offer my acknowledgments for their past kindness, which helped me to be useful to my kind in many lands.
And here I may take the opportunity of explaining that it was from a confidence in my own powers, and not at all from necessity, that I remained an unprotected female. Indeed, I do not mind confessing to my reader, in a friendly confidential way, that one of the hardest struggles of my life in Kingston was to resist the pressing candidates for the late Mr. Seacole's shoes.
Officers of high rank sometimes took up their abode in my house. Others of inferior rank were familiar with me, long before their bravery, and, alas! too often death, in the Crimea, made them world famous. There were few officers of the 97th to whom Mother Seacole was not well known, before she joined them in front of Sebastopol; and among the best known was good-hearted, loveable, noble H—— V——, whose death shocked me so terribly, and with whose useful heroic life the English public have become so familiar. I can hear the ring of his boyish laughter even now.
In the year 1850, the cholera swept over the island of Jamaica with terrible force. Our idea—perhaps an unfounded one—was, that a steamer from New Orleans was the means of introducing it into the island. Anyhow, they sent some clothes on shore to be washed, and poor Dolly Johnson, the washerwoman, whom we all knew, sickened and died of the terrible disease. While the cholera raged, I had but too many opportunities of watching its nature, and from a Dr. B——, who was then lodging in my house, received many hints as to its treatment which I afterwards found invaluable.
Early in the same year my brother had left Kingston for the Isthmus of Panama, then the great high-road to and from golden California, where he had established a considerable store and hotel. Ever since he had done so, I had found some difficulty in checking my reviving disposition to roam, and at last persuading myself that I might be of use to him (he was far from strong), I resigned my house into the hands of a cousin, and made arrangements to journey to Chagres. Having come to this conclusion, I allowed no grass to grow beneath my feet, but set to work busily, for I was not going to him empty-handed. My house was full for weeks, of tailors, making up rough coats, trousers, etc., and sempstresses cutting out and making shirts. In addition to these, my kitchen was filled with busy people, manufacturing preserves, guava jelly, and other delicacies, while a considerable sum was invested in the purchase of preserved meats, vegetables, and eggs. It will be as well, perhaps, if I explain, in as few words as possible, the then condition of the Isthmus of Panama.
All my readers must know—a glance at the map will show it to those who do not—that between North America and the envied shores of California stretches a little neck of land, insignificant-looking enough on the map, dividing the Atlantic from the Pacific. By crossing this, the travellers from America avoided a long, weary, and dangerous sea voyage round Cape Horn, or an almost impossible journey by land.
But that journey across the Isthmus, insignificant in distance as it was, was by no means an easy one. It seemed as if nature had determined to throw every conceivable obstacle in the way of those who should seek to join the two great oceans of the world. I have read and heard many accounts of old endeavours to effect this important and gigantic work, and how miserably they failed. It was reserved for the men of our age to accomplish what so many had died in attempting, and iron and steam, twin giants, subdued to man's will, have put a girdle over rocks and rivers, so that travellers can glide as smoothly, if not as inexpensively, over the once terrible Isthmus of Darien, as they can from London to Brighton. Not yet, however, does civilization, rule at Panama. The weak sway of the New Granada Republic, despised by lawless men, and respected by none, is powerless to control the refuse of every nation which meet together upon its soil. Whenever they feel inclined now they overpower the law easily; but seven years ago, when I visited the Isthmus of Panama, things were much worse, and a licence existed, compared to which the present lawless state of affairs is enviable.
When, after passing Chagres, an old-world, tumble-down town, for about seven miles, the steamer reached Navy Bay, I thought I had never seen a more luckless, dreary spot. Three sides of the place were a mere swamp, and the town itself stood upon a sand-reef, the houses being built upon piles, which some one told me rotted regularly every three years. The railway, which now connects the bay with Panama, was then building, and ran, as far as we could see, on piles, connected with the town by a wooden jetty. It seemed as capital a nursery for ague and fever as Death could hit upon anywhere, and those on board the steamer who knew it confirmed my opinion. As we arrived a steady down-pour of rain was falling from an inky sky; the white men who met us on the wharf appeared ghostly and wraith-like, and the very negroes seemed pale and wan. The news which met us did not tempt me to lose any time in getting up the country to my brother. According to all accounts, fever and ague, with some minor diseases, especially dropsy, were having it all their own way at Navy Bay, and, although I only stayed one night in the place, my medicine chest was called into requisition. But the sufferers wanted remedies which I could not give them—warmth, nourishment, and fresh air. Beneath leaky tents, damp huts, and even under broken railway waggons, I saw men dying from sheer exhaustion. Indeed, I was very glad when, with the morning, the crowd, as the Yankees called the bands of pilgrims to and from California, made ready to ascend to Panama.
The first stage of our journey was by railway to Gatun, about twelve miles distant. For the greater portion of that distance the lines ran on piles, over as unhealthy and wretched a country as the eye could well grow weary of; but, at last, the country improved, and you caught glimpses of distant hills and English-like scenery. Every mile of that fatal railway cost the world thousands of lives. I was assured that its site was marked thickly by graves, and that so great was the mortality among the labourers that three times the survivors struck in a body, and their places had to be supplied by fresh victims from America, tempted by unheard-of rates of wages. It is a gigantic undertaking, and shows what the energy and enterprise of man can accomplish. Everything requisite for its construction, even the timber, had to be prepared in, and brought from, America.
The railway then ran no further than Gatun, and here we were to take water and ascend the River Chagres to Gorgona, the next stage on the way to Cruces, where my brother was. The cars landed us at the bottom of a somewhat steep cutting through a reddish clay, and deposited me and my suite, consisting of a black servant, named "Mac," and a little girl, in safety in the midst of my many packages, not altogether satisfied with my prospects; for the rain was falling heavily and steadily, and the Gatun porters were possessing themselves of my luggage with that same avidity which distinguishes their brethren on the pier of Calais or the quays of Pera. There are two species of individuals whom I have found alike wherever my travels have carried me—the reader can guess their professions—porters and lawyers.
It was as much as I could do to gather my packages together, sit in the midst with a determined look to awe the hungry crowd around me, and send "Mac" up the steep slippery bank to report progress. After a little while he returned to say that the river-side was not far off, where boats could be hired for the upward journey. The word given, the porters threw themselves upon my packages; a pitched battle ensued, out of which issued the strongest Spanish Indians, with their hardly earned prizes, and we commenced the ascent of the clayey bank. Now, although the surveyors of the Darien highways had considerately cut steps up the steep incline, they had become worse than useless, so I floundered about terribly, more than once losing my footing altogether. And as with that due regard to personal appearance, which I have always deemed a duty as well as a pleasure to study, I had, before leaving Navy Bay, attired myself in a delicate light blue dress, a white bonnet prettily trimmed, and an equally chaste shawl, the reader can sympathise with my distress. However, I gained the summit, and after an arduous descent, of a few minutes duration, reached the river-side; in a most piteous plight, however, for my pretty dress, from its contact with the Gatun clay, looked as red as if, in the pursuit of science, I had passed it through a strong solution of muriatic acid.
By the water-side I found my travelling companions arguing angrily with the shrewd boatmen, and bating down their fares. Upon collecting my luggage, I found, as I had expected, that the porters had not neglected the glorious opportunity of robbing a woman, and that several articles were missing. Complaints, I knew, would not avail me, and stronger measures seemed hazardous and barely advisable in a lawless out-of-the-way spot, where
"The simple plan, That they should take who have the power, And they should keep who can,"
seemed universally practised, and would very likely have been defended by its practitioners upon principle.
It was not so easy to hire a boat as I had been led to expect. The large crowd had made the boatmen somewhat exorbitant in their demands, and there were several reasons why I should engage one for my own exclusive use, instead of sharing one with some of my travelling companions. In the first place, my luggage was somewhat bulky; and, in the second place, my experience of travel had not failed to teach me that Americans (even from the Northern States) are always uncomfortable in the company of coloured people, and very often show this feeling in stronger ways than by sour looks and rude words. I think, if I have a little prejudice against our cousins across the Atlantic—and I do confess to a little—it is not unreasonable. I have a few shades of deeper brown upon my skin which shows me related—and I am proud of the relationship—to those poor mortals whom you once held enslaved, and whose bodies America still owns. And having this bond, and knowing what slavery is; having seen with my eyes and heard with my ears proof positive enough of its horrors—let others affect to doubt them if they will—is it surprising that I should be somewhat impatient of the airs of superiority which many Americans have endeavoured to assume over me? Mind, I am not speaking of all. I have met with some delightful exceptions.
At length I succeeded in hiring a boat for the modest consideration of ten pounds, to carry me and my fortunes to Cruces. My boat was far from uncomfortable. Large and flat-bottomed, with an awning, dirty it must be confessed, beneath which swung a hammock, of which I took immediate possession. By the way, the Central Americans should adopt the hammock as their national badge; but for sheer necessity they would never leave it. The master of the boat, the padrone, was a fine tall negro, his crew were four common enough specimens of humanity, with a marked disregard of the prejudices of society with respect to clothing. A dirty handkerchief rolled over the head, and a wisp of something, which might have been linen, bound round the loins, formed their attire. Perhaps, however, the thick coating of dirt which covered them kept them warmer than more civilized clothing, besides being indisputably more economical.
The boat was generally propelled by paddles, but when the river was shallow, poles were used to punt us along, as on English rivers; the black padrone, whose superior position was indicated by the use of decent clothing, standing at the helm, gesticulating wildly, and swearing Spanish oaths with a vehemence that would have put Corporal Trim's comrades in Flanders to the blush. Very much shocked, of course, but finding it perfectly useless to remonstrate with him, I swung myself in my hammock and leisurely watched the river scene.
The river Chagres lolled with considerable force, now between low marshy shores, now narrowing, between steep, thickly wooded banks. It was liable, as are all rivers in hilly districts, to sudden and heavy floods; and although the padrone, on leaving Gatun, had pledged his soul to land me at Cruces that night, I had not been long afloat before I saw that he would forfeit his worthless pledge; for the wind rose to a gale, ruffling the river here and there into a little sea; the rain came down in torrents, while the river rose rapidly, bearing down on its swollen stream trunks of trees, and similar waifs and strays, which it tossed about like a giant in sport, threatening to snag us with its playthings every moment. And when we came to a sheltered reach, and found that the little fleet of boats which had preceded us had laid to there, I came to the conclusion that, stiff, tired, and hungry, I should have to pass a night upon the river Chagres. All I could get to eat was some guavas, which grew wild upon the banks, and then I watched the padrone curl his long body up among my luggage, and listened to the crew, who had rolled together at the bottom of the boat, snore as peacefully as if they slept between fair linen sheets, in the purest of calico night-gear, and the most unexceptionable of nightcaps, until somehow I fell into a troubled, dreamy sleep.
At daybreak we were enabled to pursue our journey, and in a short time reached Gorgona. I was glad enough to go on shore, as you may imagine. Gorgona was a mere temporary town of bamboo and wood houses, hastily erected to serve as a station for the crowd. In the present rainy season, when the river was navigable up to Cruces, the chief part of the population migrated thither, so that Gorgona was almost deserted, and looked indescribably damp, dirty, and dull. With some difficulty I found a bakery and a butcher's shop. The meat was not very tempting, for the Gorgona butchers did not trouble themselves about joints, but cut the flesh into strips about three inches wide, and of various lengths. These were hung upon rails, so that you bought your meat by the yard, and were spared any difficulty in the choice of joint. I cannot say that I was favourably impressed with this novel and simple way of avoiding trouble, but I was far too hungry to be particular, and buying a strip for a quarter of a real, carried it off to Mac to cook.
Late that afternoon, the padrone and his crew landed me, tired, wretched, and out of temper, upon the miserable wharf of Cruces.
MY RECEPTION AT THE INDEPENDENT HOTEL—A CRUCES TABLE D'HOTE—LIFE IN CRUCES—AMUSEMENTS OF THE CROWDS—A NOVEL FOUR-POST BED.
The sympathising reader, who very likely has been laughing heartily at my late troubles, can fancy that I was looking forward with no little pleasurable anticipation to reaching my brother's cheerful home at Cruces. After the long night spent on board the wretched boat in my stiff, clayey dress, and the hours of fasting, the warmth and good cheer of the Independent Hotel could not fail to be acceptable. My brother met me on the rickety wharf with the kindest welcome in his face, although he did not attempt to conceal a smile at my forlorn appearance, and giving the necessary instructions about my luggage, led the way at once to his house, which was situated at the upper end of the street. A capital site, he said, when the rest of the town was under water—which agreeable variety occurred twice or thrice a year unexpectedly. On our way, he rather damped my hopes by expressing his fears that he should be unable to provide his sister with the accommodation he could wish. For you see, he said, the crowd from Panama has just come in, meeting your crowd from Navy Bay; and I shouldn't be at all surprised if very many of them have no better bed than the store floors. But, despite this warning, I was miserably unprepared for the reception that awaited me. To be sure, I found Cruces as like Gorgona, in its dampness, dirt, and confusion, as it well could be; but the crowd from the gold-fields of California had just arrived, having made the journey from Panama on mules, and the street was filled with motley groups in picturesque variety of attire. The hotels were also full of them, while many lounged in the verandahs after their day's journey. Rude, coarse gold-diggers, in gay-coloured shirts, and long, serviceable boots, elbowed, in perfect equality, keen Yankee speculators, as close shaven, neat, and clean on the Isthmus of Panama as in the streets of New York or New Orleans. The women alone kept aloof from each other, and well they might; for, while a very few seemed not ashamed of their sex, it was somewhat difficult to distinguish the majority from their male companions, save by their bolder and more reckless voice and manner. I must say, however, that many of them adopted male attire for the journey across the Isthmus only, as it spared them many compliments which their husbands were often disposed to resent, however flattering they might be to their choice.
Through all these I pressed on, stiff, cold, and hungry, to the Independent Hotel, eagerly anticipating the comforts which awaited me there. At length we reached it. But, rest! warmth! comfort!—miserable delusions! Picture to yourself, sympathising reader, a long, low hut, built of rough, unhewn, unplaned logs, filled up with mud and split bamboo; a long, sloping roof and a large verandah, already full of visitors. And the interior: a long room, gaily hung with dirty calico, in stripes of red and white; above it another room, in which the guests slept, having the benefit of sharing in any orgies which might be going on below them, through the broad chinks between the rough, irregular planks which formed its floor. At the further end, a small corner, partitioned roughly off, formed a bar, and around it were shelves laden with stores for the travellers, while behind it was a little room used by my brother as his private apartment; but three female travellers had hired it for their own especial use for the night, paying the enormous sum of L10 for so exclusive a luxury. At the entrance sat a black man, taking toll of the comers-in, giving them in exchange for coin or gold-dust (he had a rusty pair of scales to weigh the latter) a dirty ticket, which guaranteed them supper, a night's lodging, and breakfast. I saw all this very quickly, and turned round upon my brother in angry despair.
"What am I to do? Why did you ever bring me to this place? See what a state I am in—cold, hungry, and wretched. I want to wash, to change my clothes, to eat, to——"
But poor Edward could only shrug his shoulders and shake his head, in answer to my indignant remonstrances. At last he made room for me in a corner of the crowded bar, set before me some food, and left me to watch the strange life I had come to; and before long I soon forgot my troubles in the novelty of my position.
The difference between the passengers to and from California was very distinguishable. Those bound for the gold country were to a certain extent fresh from civilization, and had scarcely thrown off its control; whereas the homeward bound revelled in disgusting excess of licence. Although many of the women on their way to California showed clearly enough that the life of licence they sought would not be altogether unfamiliar to them, they still retained some appearance of decency in their attire and manner; but in many cases (as I have before said) the female companions of the successful gold-diggers appeared in no hurry to resume the dress or obligations of their sex. Many were clothed as the men were, in flannel shirt and boots; rode their mules in unfeminine fashion, but with much ease and courage; and in their conversation successfully rivalled the coarseness of their lords. I think, on the whole, that those French lady writers who desire to enjoy the privileges of man, with the irresponsibility of the other sex, would have been delighted with the disciples who were carrying their principles into practice in the streets of Cruces.
The chief object of all the travellers seemed to be dinner or supper; I do not know what term they gave it. Down the entire length of the Independent Hotel ran a table covered with a green oilskin cloth, and at proper intervals were placed knives and forks, plates, and cups and saucers turned down; and when a new-comer received his ticket, and wished to secure his place for the coming repast, he would turn his plate, cup, and saucer up; which mode of reserving seats seemed respected by the rest. And as the evening wore on, the shouting and quarrelling at the doorway in Yankee twang increased momentarily; while some seated themselves at the table, and hammering upon it with the handles of their knives, hallooed out to the excited nigger cooks to make haste with the slapjack. Amidst all this confusion, my brother was quietly selling shirts, boots, trousers, etc., to the travellers; while above all the din could be heard the screaming voices of his touters without, drawing attention to the good cheer of the Independent Hotel. Over and over again, while I cowered in my snug corner, wishing to avoid the notice of all, did I wish myself safe back in my pleasant home in Kingston; but it was too late to find out my mistake now.
At last the table was nearly filled with a motley assemblage of men and women, and the slapjack, hot and steaming, was carried in by the black cooks. The hungry diners welcomed its advent with a shout of delight; and yet it did not seem particularly tempting. But beyond all doubt it was a capital piece de resistance for great eaters; and before the dinner was over, I saw ample reasons to induce any hotel-keeper to give it his patronage. In truth, it was a thick substantial pancake of flour, salt, and water—eggs were far too expensive to be used in its composition; and by the time the supply had disappeared, I thought the largest appetites must have been stayed. But it was followed by pork, strips of beef stewed with hard dumplings, hams, great dishes of rice, jugs of molasses and treacle for sauce; the whole being washed down with an abundance of tea and coffee. Chickens and eggs were provided for those who were prepared to pay for these luxuries of Panama life. But, so scarce and expensive were they, that, as I afterwards discovered, those hotel-keepers whose larders were so stocked would hang out a chicken upon their signposts, as a sure attraction for the richer and more reckless diggers; while the touter's cry of "Eggs and chickens here" was a very telling one. Wine and spirits were also obtainable, but were seldom taken by the Americans, who are abstemious abroad as well as at home.
After dinner the store soon cleared. Gambling was a great attraction; but my brother, dreading its consequences with these hot-brained armed men, allowed none to take place in his hotel. So some lounged away to the faro and monte tables, which were doing a busy trade; others loitered in the verandah, smoking, and looking at the native women, who sang and danced fandangos before them. The whole of the dirty, woe-begone place, which had looked so wretched by the light of day, was brilliantly illuminated now. Night would bring no rest to Cruces, while the crowds were there to be fed, cheated, or amused. Daybreak would find the faro-tables, with their piles of silver and little heaps of gold-dust, still surrounded by haggard gamblers; daybreak would gleam sickly upon the tawdry finery of the poor Spanish singers and dancers, whose weary night's work would enable them to live upon the travellers' bounty for the next week or so. These few hours of gaiety and excitement were to provide the Cruces people with food and clothing for as many days; and while their transitory sun shone, I will do them the justice to say they gathered in their hay busily. In the exciting race for gold, we need not be surprised at the strange groups which line the race-course. All that I wondered at was, that I had not foreseen what I found, or that my rage for change and novelty had closed my ears against the warning voices of those who knew somewhat of the high-road to California; but I was too tired to moralise long, and begged my brother to find me a bed somewhere. He failed to do so completely, and in despair I took the matter in my own hands; and stripping the green oilskin cloth from the rough table—it would not be wanted again until to-morrow's breakfast—pinned up some curtains round the table's legs, and turned in with my little servant beneath it. It was some comfort to know that my brother, his servants, and Mac brought their mattresses, and slept upon it above us. It was a novel bed, and required some slight stretch of the imagination to fancy it a four-poster; but I was too tired to be particular, and slept soundly.
We were up right early on the following morning; and refreshed with my night's sleep, I entered heartily into the preparations for breakfast. That meal over, the homeward-bound passengers took boats en route for Gorgona, while those bound for California hired mules for the land journey to Panama. So after awhile all cleared away, and Cruces was left to its unhealthy solitude.
AN UNWELCOME VISITOR IN CRUCES—THE CHOLERA—SUCCESS OF THE YELLOW DOCTRESS—FEARFUL SCENE AT THE MULE-OWNER'S—THE BURYING PARTIES—THE CHOLERA ATTACKS ME.
I do not think I have ever known what it is to despair, or even to despond (if such were my inclination, I have had some opportunities recently), and it was not long before I began to find out the bright side of Cruces life, and enter into schemes for staying there. But it would be a week or so before the advent of another crowd would wake Cruces to life and activity again; and in the meanwhile, and until I could find a convenient hut for my intended hotel, I remained my brother's guest.
But it was destined that I should not be long in Cruces before my medicinal skill and knowledge were put to the test. Before the passengers for Panama had been many days gone, it was found that they had left one of their number behind them, and that one—the cholera. I believe that the faculty have not yet come to the conclusion that the cholera is contagious, and I am not presumptuous enough to forestall them; but my people have always considered it to be so, and the poor Cruces folks did not hesitate to say that this new and terrible plague had been a fellow-traveller with the Americans from New Orleans or some other of its favoured haunts. I had the first intimation of its unwelcome presence in the following abrupt and unpleasant manner:—
A Spaniard, an old and intimate friend of my brother, had supped with him one evening, and upon returning home had been taken ill, and after a short period of intense suffering had died. So sudden and so mysterious a death gave rise to the rumour that he had been poisoned, and suspicion rested for a time, perhaps not unnaturally, upon my brother, in whose company the dead man had last been. Anxious for many reasons—the chief one, perhaps, the position of my brother—I went down to see the corpse. A single glance at the poor fellow showed me the terrible truth. The distressed face, sunken eyes, cramped limbs, and discoloured shrivelled skin were all symptoms which I had been familiar with very recently; and at once I pronounced the cause of death to be cholera. The Cruces people were mightily angry with me for expressing such an opinion; even my brother, although it relieved him of the odium of a great crime, was as annoyed as the rest. But by twelve o'clock that morning one of the Spaniard's friends was attacked similarly, and the very people who had been most angry with me a few hours previously, came to me now eager for advice. There was no doctor in Cruces; the nearest approach to one was a little timid dentist, who was there by accident, and who refused to prescribe for the sufferer, and I was obliged to do my best. Selecting from my medicine chest—I never travel anywhere without it—what I deemed necessary, I went hastily to the patient, and at once adopted the remedies I considered fit. It was a very obstinate case, but by dint of mustard emetics, warm fomentations, mustard plasters on the stomach and the back, and calomel, at first in large then in gradually smaller doses, I succeeded in saving my first cholera patient in Cruces.
For a few days the terrible disease made such slow progress amongst us that we almost hoped it had passed on its way and spared us; but all at once it spread rapidly, and affrighted faces and cries of woe soon showed how fatally the destroyer was at work. And in so great request were my services, that for days and nights together I scarcely knew what it was to enjoy two successive hours' rest.
And here I must pause to set myself right with my kind reader. He or she will not, I hope, think that, in narrating these incidents, I am exalting my poor part in them unduly. I do not deny (it is the only thing indeed that I have to be proud of) that I am pleased and gratified when I look back upon my past life, and see times now and then, and places here and there, when and where I have been enabled to benefit my fellow-creatures suffering from ills my skill could often remedy. Nor do I think that the kind reader will consider this feeling an unworthy one. If it be so, and if, in the following pages, the account of what Providence has given me strength to do on larger fields of action be considered vain or egotistical, still I cannot help narrating them, for my share in them appears to be the one and only claim I have to interest the public ear. Moreover I shall be sadly disappointed, if those years of life which may be still in store for me are not permitted by Providence to be devoted to similar usefulness. I am not ashamed to confess—for the gratification is, after all, a selfish one—that I love to be of service to those who need a woman's help. And wherever the need arises—on whatever distant shore—I ask no greater or higher privilege than to minister to it. After this explanation, I resume more freely the account of my labours in Cruces.
It was scarcely surprising that the cholera should spread rapidly, for fear is its powerful auxiliary, and the Cruces people bowed down before the plague in slavish despair. The Americans and other foreigners in the place showed a brave front, but the natives, constitutionally cowardly, made not the feeblest show of resistance. Beyond filling the poor church, and making the priests bring out into the streets figures of tawdry dirty saints, supposed to possess some miraculous influence which they never exerted, before which they prostrated themselves, invoking their aid with passionate prayers and cries, they did nothing. Very likely the saints would have got the credit of helping them if they had helped themselves; but the poor cowards never stirred a finger to clean out their close, reeking huts, or rid the damp streets of the rotting accumulation of months. I think their chief reliance was on "the yellow woman from Jamaica with the cholera medicine." Nor was this surprising; for the Spanish doctor, who was sent for from Panama, became nervous and frightened at the horrors around him, and the people soon saw that he was not familiar with the terrible disease he was called upon to do battle with, and preferred trusting to one who was.
It must be understood that many of those who could afford to pay for my services did so handsomely, but the great majority of my patients had nothing better to give their doctress than thanks. The best part of my practice lay amongst the American store and hotel keepers, the worst among the native boatmen and muleteers. These latter died by scores, and among them I saw some scenes of horror I would fain forget, if it were possible. One terrible night, passed with some of them, has often haunted me. I will endeavour to narrate it, and should the reader be supposed to think it highly coloured and doubtful, I will only tell him that, terrible as it seems, I saw almost as fearful scenes on the Crimean peninsula among British men, a few thousand miles only from comfort and plenty.
It was late in the evening when the largest mule-owner in Cruces came to me and implored me to accompany him to his kraal, a short distance from the town, where he said some of his men were dying. One in particular, his head muleteer, a very valuable servant, he was most selfishly anxious for, and, on the way thither, promised me a large remuneration if I should succeed in saving him. Our journey was not a long one, but it rained hard, and the fields were flooded, so that it took us some time to reach the long, low hut which he called his home. I would rather not see such another scene as the interior of that hut presented. Its roof scarcely sheltered its wretched inmates from the searching rain; its floor was the damp, rank turf, trodden by the mules' hoofs and the muleteers' feet into thick mud. Around, in dirty hammocks, and on the damp floor, were the inmates of this wretched place, male and female, the strong and the sick together, breathing air that nearly choked me, accustomed as I had grown to live in impure atmosphere; for beneath the same roof the mules, more valuable to their master than his human servants, were stabled, their fore-feet locked, and beside them were heaps of saddles, packs, and harness. The groans of the sufferers and the anxiety and fear of their comrades were so painful to hear and witness, that for a few minutes I felt an almost uncontrollable impulse to run out into the stormy night, and flee from this plague-spot. But the weak feeling vanished, and I set about my duty. The mule-owner was so frightened that he did not hesitate to obey orders, and, by my directions, doors and shutters were thrown open, fires were lighted, and every effort made to ventilate the place; and then, with the aid of the frightened women, I applied myself to my poor patients. Two were beyond my skill. Death alone could give them relief. The others I could help. But no words of mine could induce them to bear their terrible sufferings like men. They screamed and groaned, not like women, for few would have been so craven-hearted, but like children; calling, in the intervals of violent pain, upon Jesu, the Madonna, and all the saints of heaven whom their lives had scandalised. I stayed with them until midnight, and then got away for a little time. But I had not long been quiet, before the mule-master was after me again. The men were worse; would I return with him. The rain was drifting heavily on the thatched roof, as it only does in tropical climates, and I was tired to death; but I could not resist his appeal. He had brought with him a pair of tall, thick boots, in which I was to wade through the flooded fields; and with some difficulty I again reached the kraal. I found the worst cases sinking fast, one of the others had relapsed, while fear had paralysed the efforts of the rest. At last I restored some order; and, with the help of the bravest of the women, fixed up rude screens around the dying men. But no screens could shut out from the others their awful groans and cries for the aid that no mortal power could give them. So the long night passed away; first a deathlike stillness behind one screen, and then a sudden silence behind the other, showing that the fierce battle with death was over, and who had been the victor. And, meanwhile, I sat before the flickering fire, with my last patient in my lap—a poor, little, brown-faced orphan infant, scarce a year old, was dying in my arms, and I was powerless to save it. It may seem strange, but it is a fact, that I thought more of that little child than I did of the men who were struggling for their lives, and prayed very earnestly and solemnly to God to spare it. But it did not please Him to grant my prayer, and towards morning the wee spirit left this sinful world for the home above it had so lately left, and what was mortal of the little infant lay dead in my arms. Then it was that I began to think—how the idea first arose in my mind I can hardly say—that, if it were possible to take this little child and examine it, I should learn more of the terrible disease which was sparing neither young nor old, and should know better how to do battle with it. I was not afraid to use my baby patient thus. I knew its fled spirit would not reproach me, for I had done all I could for it in life—had shed tears over it, and prayed for it.
It was cold grey dawn, and the rain had ceased, when I followed the man who had taken the dead child away to bury it, and bribed him to carry it by an unfrequented path down to the river-side, and accompany me to the thick retired bush on the opposite bank. Having persuaded him thus much, it was not difficult, with the help of silver arguments to convince him that it would be for the general benefit and his own, if I could learn from this poor little thing the secret inner workings of our common foe; and ultimately he stayed by me, and aided me in my first and last post mortem examination. It seems a strange deed to accomplish, and I am sure I could not wield the scalpel or the substitute I then used now, but at that time the excitement had strung my mind up to a high pitch of courage and determination; and perhaps the daily, almost hourly, scenes of death had made me somewhat callous. I need not linger on this scene, nor give the readers the results of my operation; although novel to me, and decidedly useful, they were what every medical man well knows.
We buried the poor little body beneath a piece of luxuriant turf, and stole back into Cruces like guilty things. But the knowledge I had obtained thus strangely was very valuable to me, and was soon put into practice. But that I dreaded boring my readers, I would fain give them some idea of my treatment of this terrible disease. I have no doubt that at first I made some lamentable blunders, and, may be, lost patients which a little later I could have saved. I know I came across, the other day, some notes of cholera medicines which made me shudder, and I dare say they have been used in their turn and found wanting. The simplest remedies were perhaps the best. Mustard plasters, and emetics, and calomel; the mercury applied externally, where the veins were nearest the surface, were my usual resources. Opium I rather dreaded, as its effect is to incapacitate the system from making any exertion, and it lulls the patient into a sleep which is often the sleep of death. When my patients felt thirsty, I would give them water in which cinnamon had been boiled. One stubborn attack succumbed to an additional dose of ten grains of sugar of lead, mixed in a pint of water, given in doses of a table-spoonful every quarter of an hour. Another patient, a girl, I rubbed over with warm oil, camphor, and spirits of wine. Above all, I never neglected to apply mustard poultices to the stomach, spine, and neck, and particularly to keep my patient warm about the region of the heart. Nor did I relax my care when the disease had passed by, for danger did not cease when the great foe was beaten off. The patient was left prostrate; strengthening medicines had to be given cautiously, for fever, often of the brain, would follow. But, after all, one great conclusion, which my practice in cholera cases enabled me to come to, was the old one, that few constitutions permitted the use of exactly similar remedies, and that the course of treatment which saved one man, would, if persisted in, have very likely killed his brother.
Generally speaking, the cholera showed premonitory symptoms; such as giddiness, sickness, diarrhoea, or sunken eyes and distressed look; but sometimes the substance followed its forecoming shadow so quickly, and the crisis was so rapid, that there was no time to apply any remedies. An American carpenter complained of giddiness and sickness—warning signs—succeeded so quickly by the worst symptoms of cholera, that in less than an hour his face became of an indigo tint, his limbs were doubled up horribly with violent cramps, and he died.
To the convicts—and if there could be grades of wretchedness in Cruces, these poor creatures were the lowest—belonged the terrible task of burying the dead; a duty to which they showed the utmost repugnance. Not unfrequently, at some fancied alarm, they would fling down their burden, until at last it became necessary to employ the soldiers to see that they discharged the task allotted to them. Ordinarily, the victims were buried immediately after death, with such imperfect rites of sepulture as the harassed frightened priests would pay them, and very seldom was time afforded by the authorities to the survivors to pay those last offices to the departed which a Spaniard and a Catholic considers so important. Once I was present at a terrible scene in the house of a New Granada grandee, whose pride and poverty justified many of the old Spanish proverbs levelled at his caste.
It was when the cholera was at its height, and yet he had left—perhaps on important business—his wife and family, and gone to Panama for three days. On the day after his departure, the plague broke out in his house, and my services were required promptly. I found the miserable household in terrible alarm, and yet confining their exertions to praying to a coarse black priest in a black surplice, who, kneeling beside the couch of the Spanish lady, was praying (in his turn) to some favourite saint in Cruces. The sufferer was a beautiful woman, suffering from a violent attack of cholera, with no one to help her, or even to take from her arms the poor little child they had allowed her to retain. In her intervals of comparative freedom from pain, her cries to the Madonna and her husband were heartrending to hear. I had the greatest difficulty to rout the stupid priest and his as stupid worshippers, and do what I could for the sufferer. It was very little, and before long the unconscious Spaniard was a widower. Soon after, the authorities came for the body. I never saw such passionate anger and despair as were shown by her relatives and servants, old and young, at the intrusion—rage that she, who had been so exalted in life, should go to her grave like the poor, poor clay she was. Orders were given to bar the door against the convict gang who had come to discharge their unpleasant duty, and while all were busy decking out the unconscious corpse in gayest attire, none paid any heed to me bending over the fire with the motherless child, journeying fast to join its dead parent. I had made more than one effort to escape, for I felt more sick and wretched than at any similar scene of woe; but finding exit impossible, I turned my back upon them, and attended to the dying child. Nor did I heed their actions until I heard orders given to admit the burial party, and then I found that they had dressed the corpse in rich white satin, and decked her head with flowers.
The agitation and excitement of this scene had affected me as no previous horror had done, and I could not help fancying that symptoms were showing themselves in me with which I was familiar enough in others. Leaving the dying infant to the care of its relatives (when the Spaniard returned he found himself widowed and childless), I hastened to my brother's house. When there, I felt an unpleasant chill come over me, and went to bed at once. Other symptoms followed quickly, and, before nightfall, I knew full well that my turn had come at last, and that the cholera had attacked me, perhaps its greatest foe in Cruces.
AMERICAN SYMPATHY—I TAKE AN HOTEL IN CRUCES—MY CUSTOMERS—LOLA MONTES—MISS HAYES AND THE BISHOP—GAMBLING IN CRUCES—QUARRELS AMONGST THE TRAVELLERS—NEW GRANADA MILITARY—THE THIEVES OF CRUCES—A NARROW ESCAPE.
When it became known that their "yellow doctress" had the cholera, I must do the people of Cruces the justice to say that they gave her plenty of sympathy, and would have shown their regard for her more actively, had there been any occasion. Indeed, when I most wanted quiet, it was difficult to keep out the sympathising Americans and sorrowing natives who came to inquire after me; and who, not content with making their inquiries, and leaving their offerings of blankets, flannel, etc., must see with their own eyes what chance the yellow woman had of recovery. The rickety door of my little room could never be kept shut for many minutes together. A visitor would open it silently, poke his long face in with an expression of sympathy that almost made me laugh in spite of my pain, draw it out again, between the narrowest possible opening, as if he were anxious to admit as little air as he could; while another would come in bodily, and after looking at me curiously and inquisitively, as he would eye a horse or nigger he had some thoughts of making a bid for, would help to carpet my room, with the result perhaps of his meditations, and saying, gravely, "Air you better, Aunty Seacole, now? Isn't there a something we can du for you, ma'am?" would as gravely give place to another and another yet, until I was almost inclined to throw something at them, or call them bad names, like the Scotch king does the ghosts in the play.[A] But, fortunately, the attack was a very mild one, and by the next day all danger had gone by, although I still felt weak and exhausted.
After a few weeks, the first force of the cholera was spent, and although it lingered with us, as though loath to leave so fine a resting-place, for some months, it no longer gave us much alarm; and before long, life went on as briskly and selfishly as ever with the Cruces survivors, and the terrible past was conveniently forgotten. Perhaps it is so everywhere; but the haste with which the Cruces people buried their memory seemed indecent. Old houses found new masters; the mules new drivers; the great Spaniard chose another pretty woman, and had a grand, poor, dirty wedding, and was married by the same lazy black priest who had buried his wife, dead a few months back; and very likely they would all have hastened as quickly to forget their doctress, had circumstances permitted them: but every now and then one of them sickened and died of the old complaint; and the reputation I had established founded for me a considerable practice. The Americans in the place gladly retained me as their medical attendant, and in one way or other gave me plenty to do; but, in addition to this, I determined to follow my original scheme of keeping an hotel in Cruces.
Right opposite my brother's Independent Hotel there was a place to let which it was considered I could adapt to my purpose. It was a mere tumble-down hut, with wattled sides, and a rotten thatched roof, containing two rooms, one small enough to serve as a bedroom. For this charming residence—very openly situated, and well ventilated—twenty pounds a month was considered a fair and by no means exorbitant rent. And yet I was glad to take possession of it; and in a few days had hung its rude walls with calico of gayest colour in stripes, with an exuberance of fringes, frills, and bows (the Americans love show dearly), and prepared it to accommodate fifty dinner guests. I had determined that it should be simply a table d'hote, and that I would receive no lodgers. Once, and once only, I relaxed this rule in favour of two American women, who sent me to sleep by a lengthy quarrel of words, woke me in the night to witness its crisis in a fisticuff duello, and left in the morning, after having taken a fancy to some of my moveables which were most easily removeable. I had on my staff my black servant Mac, the little girl I have before alluded to, and a native cook. I had had many opportunities of seeing how my brother conducted his business; and adopted his tariff of charges. For an ordinary dinner my charge was four shillings; eggs and chickens were, as I have before said, distinct luxuries, and fetched high prices.
Four crowds generally passed through Cruces every month. In these were to be found passengers to and from Chili, Peru, and Lima, as well as California and America. The distance from Cruces to Panama was not great—only twenty miles, in fact; but the journey, from the want of roads and the roughness of the country, was a most fatiguing one. In some parts—as I found when I made the journey, in company with my brother—it was almost impassable; and for more than half the distance, three miles an hour was considered splendid progress. The great majority of the travellers were rough, rude men, of dirty, quarrelsome habits; the others were more civilized and more dangerous. And it was not long before I grew very tired of life in Cruces, although I made money rapidly, and pressed my brother to return to Kingston. Poor fellow! it would have been well for him had he done so; for he stayed only to find a grave on the Isthmus of Panama.
The company at my table d'hote was not over select; and it was often very difficult for an unprotected female to manage them, although I always did my best to put them in good humour. Among other comforts, I used to hire a black barber, for the rather large consideration of two pounds, to shave my male guests. You can scarcely conceive the pleasure and comfort an American feels in a clean chin; and I believe my barber attracted considerable custom to the British Hotel at Cruces. I had a little out-house erected for his especial convenience; and there, well provided with towels, and armed with plenty of razors, a brush of extraordinary size, and a foaming sea of lather, Jose shaved the new-comers. The rivalry to get within reach of his huge brush was very great; and the threats used by the neglected, when the grinning black was considered guilty of any interested partiality, were of the fiercest description.
This duty over, they and their coarser female companions—many of them well known to us, for they travelled backwards and forwards across the Isthmus, hanging on to the foolish gold-finders—attacked the dinner, very often with great lack of decency. It was no use giving them carving-knives and forks, for very often they laid their own down to insert a dirty hairy hand into a full dish; while the floor soon bore evidences of the great national American habit of expectoration. Very often quarrels would arise during the progress of dinner; and more than once I thought the knives, which they nearly swallowed at every mouthful, would have been turned against one another. It was, I always thought, extremely fortunate that the reckless men rarely stimulated their excitable passions with strong drink. Tea and coffee were the common beverages of the Americans; Englishmen, and men of other nations, being generally distinguishable by their demand for wine and spirits. But the Yankee's capacity for swilling tea and coffee was prodigious. I saw one man drink ten cups of coffee; and finding his appetite still unsatisfied, I ran across to my brother for advice. There was a merry twinkle in his eyes as he whispered, "I always put in a good spoonful of salt after the sixth cup. It chokes them off admirably."
It was no easy thing to avoid being robbed and cheated by the less scrupulous travellers; although I think it was only the 'cutest Yankee who stood any fair chance of outwitting me. I remember an instance of the biter bit, which I will narrate, hoping it may make my reader laugh as heartily as its recollection makes me. He was a tall, thin Yankee, with a furtive glance of the eyes, and an amazing appetite, which he seemed nothing loath to indulge: his appetite for eggs especially seemed unbounded. Now, I have more than once said how expensive eggs were; and this day they happened to be eightpence apiece. Our plan was to charge every diner according to the number of shells found upon his plate. Now, I noticed how eagerly my thin guest attacked my eggs, and marvelled somewhat at the scanty pile of shells before him. My suspicions once excited, I soon fathomed my Yankee friend's dodge. As soon as he had devoured the eggs, he conveyed furtively the shells beneath the table, and distributed them impartially at the feet of his companions. I gave my little black maid a piece of chalk, and instructions; and creeping under the table, she counted the scattered shells, and chalked the number on the tail of his coat. And when he came up to pay his score, he gave up his number of eggs in a loud voice; and when I contradicted him, and referred to the coat-tale in corroboration of my score, there was a general laugh against him. But there was a nasty expression in his cat-like eyes, and an unpleasant allusion to mine, which were not agreeable, and dissuaded me from playing any more practical jokes upon the Yankees.
I followed my brother's example closely, and forbade all gambling in my hotel. But I got some idea of its fruits from the cases brought to me for surgical treatment from the faro and monte tables. Gambling at Cruces, and on the Isthmus generally, was a business by which money was wormed out of the gold-seekers and gold-finders. No attempt was made to render it attractive, as I have seen done elsewhere. The gambling-house was often plainer than our hotels; and but for the green tables, with their piles of money and gold-dust, watched over by a well-armed determined banker, and the eager gamblers around, you would not know that you were in the vicinity of a spot which the English at home designate by a very decided and extreme name. A Dr. Casey—everybody familiar with the Americans knows their fondness for titles—owned the most favoured table in Cruces; and this, although he was known to be a reckless and unscrupulous villain. Most of them knew that he had been hunted out of San Francisco; and at that time—years before the Vigilance Committee commenced their labours of purification—a man too bad for that city must have been a prodigy of crime: and yet, and although he was violent-tempered, and had a knack of referring the slightest dispute to his revolver, his table was always crowded; probably because—the greatest rogues have some good qualities—he was honest in his way, and played fairly.
Occasionally some distinguished passengers passed on the upward and downward tides of rascality and ruffianism, that swept periodically through Cruces. Came one day, Lola Montes, in the full zenith of her evil fame, bound for California, with a strange suite. A good-looking, bold woman, with fine, bad eyes, and a determined bearing; dressed ostentatiously in perfect male attire, with shirt-collar turned down over a velvet lapelled coat, richly worked shirt-front, black hat, French unmentionables, and natty, polished boots with spurs. She carried in her hand a handsome riding-whip, which she could use as well in the streets of Cruces as in the towns of Europe; for an impertinent American, presuming—perhaps not unnaturally—upon her reputation, laid hold jestingly of the tails of her long coat, and as a lesson received a cut across his face that must have marked him for some days. I did not wait to see the row that followed, and was glad when the wretched woman rode off on the following morning. A very different notoriety followed her at some interval of time—Miss Catherine Hayes, on her successful singing tour, who disappointed us all by refusing to sing at Cruces; and after her came an English bishop from Australia, who need have been a member of the church militant to secure his pretty wife from the host of admirers she had gained during her day's journey from Panama.
Very quarrelsome were the majority of the crowds, holding life cheap, as all bad men strangely do—equally prepared to take or lose it upon the slightest provocation. Few tales of horror in Panama could be questioned on the ground of improbability. Not less partial were many of the natives of Cruces to the use of the knife; preferring, by the way, to administer sly stabs in the back, when no one was by to see the dastard blow dealt. Terribly bullied by the Americans were the boatmen and muleteers, who were reviled, shot, and stabbed by these free and independent filibusters, who would fain whop all creation abroad as they do their slaves at home. Whenever any Englishmen were present, and in a position to interfere with success, this bullying was checked; and they found, instead of the poor Spanish Indians, foemen worthy of their steel or lead. I must do them credit to say, that they were never loath to fight any one that desired that passing excitement, and thought little of ending their journey of life abruptly at the wretched wayside town of Cruces. It very often happened so, and over many a hasty head and ready hand have I seen the sod roughly pressed down, their hot hearts stilled suddenly in some senseless quarrel. And so in time I grew to have some considerable experience in the treatment of knife and gun-shot wounds.
One night I heard a great noise outside my window, and on rising found a poor boatman moaning piteously, and in a strange jumble of many languages begging me to help him. At first I was afraid to open the door, on account of the noisy mob which soon joined him, for villainy was very shrewd at Cruces; but at last I admitted him, and found that the poor wretch's ears had been cruelly split by some hasty citizen of the United States. I stitched them up as well as I could, and silenced his cries. And at any time, if you happened to be near the river when a crowd were arriving or departing, your ears would be regaled with a choice chorus of threats, of which ear-splitting, eye-gouging, cow-hiding, and the application of revolvers were the mildest. Against the negroes, of whom there were many in the Isthmus, and who almost invariably filled the municipal offices, and took the lead in every way, the Yankees had a strong prejudice; but it was wonderful to see how freedom and equality elevate men, and the same negro who perhaps in Tennessee would have cowered like a beaten child or dog beneath an American's uplifted hand, would face him boldly here, and by equal courage and superior physical strength cow his old oppressor.
When more than ordinary squabbles occurred in the street or at the gambling-tables, the assistance of the soldier-police of New Granada was called in, and the affair sometimes assumed the character of a regular skirmish. The soldiers—I wish I could speak better of them—were a dirty, cowardly, indolent set, more prone to use their knives than their legitimate arms, and bore old rusty muskets, and very often marched unshod. Their officers were in outward appearance a few shades superior to the men they commanded, but, as respects military proficiency, were their equals. Add to this description of their personnel the well-known fact, that you might commit the grossest injustice, and could obtain the simplest justice only by lavish bribery, and you may form some idea of our military protectors.
Very practised and skilful in thieving were the native population of Cruces—I speak of the majority, and except the negroes—always more inclined to do a dishonest night's labour at great risk, than an honest day's work for fair wages; for justice was always administered strictly to the poor natives—it was only the foreigners who could evade it or purchase exemption. Punishment was severe; and in extreme cases the convicts were sent to Carthagena, there to suffer imprisonment of a terrible character. Indeed, from what I heard of the New Granada prisons, I thought no other country could match them, and continued to think so until I read how the ingenuity in cruelty of his Majesty the King of Naples put the torturers of the New Granada Republic to the blush.
I generally avoided claiming the protection of the law whilst on the Isthmus, for I found it was—as is the case in civilized England from other causes—rather an expensive luxury. Once only I took a thief caught in the act before the alcalde, and claimed the administration of justice. The court-house was a low bamboo shed, before which some dirty Spanish-Indian soldiers were lounging; and inside, the alcalde, a negro, was reclining in a dirty hammock, smoking coolly, hearing evidence, and pronouncing judgment upon the wretched culprits, who were trembling before his dusky majesty. I had attended him while suffering from an attack of cholera, and directly he saw me he rose from his hammock, and received me in a ceremonious, grand manner, and gave orders that coffee should be brought to me. He had a very pretty white wife, who joined us; and then the alcalde politely offered me a cigarito—having declined which, he listened to my statement with great attention. All this, however, did not prevent my leaving the necessary fee in furtherance of justice, nor his accepting it. Its consequence was, that the thief, instead of being punished as a criminal, was ordered to pay me the value of the stolen goods; which, after weeks of hesitation and delay, she eventually did, in pearls, combs, and other curiosities.
Whenever an American was arrested by the New Granada authorities, justice had a hard struggle for the mastery, and rarely obtained it. Once I was present at the court-house, when an American was brought in heavily ironed, charged with having committed a highway robbery—if I may use the term where there were no roads—on some travellers from Chili. Around the frightened soldiers swelled an angry crowd of brother Americans, abusing and threatening the authorities in no measured terms, all of them indignant that a nigger should presume to judge one of their countrymen. At last their violence so roused the sleepy alcalde, that he positively threw himself from his hammock, laid down his cigarito, and gave such very determined orders to his soldiers that he succeeded in checking the riot. Then, with an air of decision that puzzled everybody, he addressed the crowd, declaring angrily, that since the Americans came the country had known no peace, that robberies and crimes of every sort had increased, and ending by expressing his determination to make strangers respect the laws of the Republic, and to retain the prisoner; and if found guilty, punish him as he deserved. The Americans seemed too astonished at the audacity of the black man, who dared thus to beard them, to offer any resistance; but I believe that the prisoner was allowed ultimately to escape.
I once had a narrow escape from the thieves of Cruces. I had been down to Chagres for some stores, and returning, late in the evening, too tired to put away my packages, had retired to rest at once. My little maid, who was not so fatigued as I was, and slept more lightly, woke me in the night to listen to a noise in the thatch, at the further end of the store; but I was so accustomed to hear the half-starved mules of Cruces munching my thatch, that I listened lazily for a few minutes, and then went unsuspiciously into another heavy sleep. I do not know how long it was before I was again awoke by the child's loud screams and cries of "Hombro—landro;" and sure enough, by the light of the dying fire, I saw a fellow stealing away with my dress, in the pocket of which was my purse. I was about to rush forward, when the fire gleamed on a villainous-looking knife in his hand; so I stood still, and screamed loudly, hoping to arouse my brother over the way. For a moment the thief seemed inclined to silence me, and had taken a few steps forward, when I took up an old rusty horse-pistol which my brother had given me that I might look determined, and snatching down the can of ground coffee, proceeded to prime it, still screaming as loudly as my strong lungs would permit, until the rascal turned tail and stole away through the roof. The thieves usually buried their spoil like dogs, as they were; but this fellow had only time to hide it behind a bush, where it was found on the following morning, and claimed by me.
[A] Mrs. Seacole very likely refers to Macbeth. But it was the witches he abused.—Ed.
MIGRATION TO GORGONA—FAREWELL DINNERS AND SPEECHES—A BUILDING SPECULATION—LIFE IN GORGONA—SYMPATHY WITH AMERICAN SLAVES—DR. CASEY IN TROUBLE—FLOODS AND FIRES—YANKEE INDEPENDENCE AND FREEDOM.
I remained at Cruces until the rainy months came to an end, and the river grew too shallow to be navigable by the boats higher up than Gorgona; and then we all made preparations for a flitting to that place. But before starting, it appeared to be the custom for the store and hotel keepers to exchange parting visits, and to many of these parties I, in virtue of my recent services to the community, received invitations. The most important social meeting took place on the anniversary of the declaration of American independence, at my brother's hotel, where a score of zealous Americans dined most heartily—as they never fail to do; and, as it was an especial occasion, drank champagne liberally at twelve shillings a bottle. And, after the usual patriotic toasts had been duly honoured, they proposed "the ladies," with an especial reference to myself, in a speech which I thought worth noting down at the time. The spokesman was a thin, sallow-looking American, with a pompous and yet rapid delivery, and a habit of turning over his words with his quid before delivering them, and clearing his mouth after each sentence, perhaps to make room for the next. I shall beg the reader to consider that the blanks express the time expended on this operation. He dashed into his work at once, rolling up and getting rid of his sentences as he went on:—
"Well, gentlemen, I expect you'll all support me in a drinking of this toast that I du——. Aunty Seacole, gentlemen; I give you, Aunty Seacole——. We can't du less for her, after what she's done for us——, when the cholera was among us, gentlemen——, not many months ago——. So, I say, God bless the best yaller woman He ever made——, from Jamaica, gentlemen——, from the Isle of Springs——Well, gentlemen, I expect there are only tu things we're vexed for——; and the first is, that she ain't one of us——, a citizen of the great United States——; and the other thing is, gentlemen——, that Providence made her a yaller woman. I calculate, gentlemen, you're all as vexed as I am that she's not wholly white——, but I du reckon on your rejoicing with me that she's so many shades removed from being entirely black——; and I guess, if we could bleach her by any means we would——, and thus make her as acceptable in any company as she deserves to be——. Gentlemen, I give you Aunty Seacole!"
And so the orator sat down amidst much applause. It may be supposed that I did not need much persuasion to return thanks, burning, as I was, to tell them my mind on the subject of my colour. Indeed, if my brother had not checked me, I should have given them my thoughts somewhat too freely. As it was, I said:—
"Gentlemen,—I return you my best thanks for your kindness in drinking my health. As for what I have done in Cruces, Providence evidently made me to be useful, and I can't help it. But, I must say, that I don't altogether appreciate your friend's kind wishes with respect to my complexion. If it had been as dark as any nigger's, I should have been just as happy and as useful, and as much respected by those whose respect I value; and as to his offer of bleaching me, I should, even if it were practicable, decline it without any thanks. As to the society which the process might gain me admission into, all I can say is, that, judging from the specimens I have met with here and elsewhere, I don't think that I shall lose much by being excluded from it. So, gentlemen, I drink to you and the general reformation of American manners."
I do not think that they altogether admired my speech, but I was a somewhat privileged person, and they laughed at it good-naturedly enough. Perhaps (for I was not in the best humour myself) I should have been better pleased if they had been angry.
Rightly, I ought to have gone down to Gorgona a few weeks before Cruces was deserted, and secured an hotel; but I did not give up all hope of persuading my brother to leave the Isthmus until the very last moment, and then, of course, a suitable house was not to be hired in Gorgona for love or money. Seeing his fixed determination to stay, I consented to remain with him, for he was young and often ill, and set hard to work to settle myself somewhere. With the aid of an old Jamaica friend, who had settled at Gorgona, I at last found a miserable little hut for sale, and bought it for a hundred dollars. It consisted of one room only, and was, in its then condition, utterly unfit for my purpose; but I determined to set to work and build on to it—by no means the hazardous speculation in Gorgona, where bricks and mortar are unknown, that it is in England. The alcalde's permission to make use of the adjacent ground was obtained for a moderate consideration, and plenty of material was procurable from the opposite bank of the river. An American, whom I had cured of the cholera at Cruces, lent me his boat, and I hired two or three natives to cut down and shape the posts and bamboo poles. Directly these were raised, Mac and my little maid set to work and filled up the spaces between them with split bamboo canes and reeds, and before long my new hotel was ready to be roofed. The building process was simple enough, and I soon found myself in possession of a capital dining-room some thirty feet in length, which was gaily hung with coloured calico, concealing all defects of construction, and lighted with large oil lamps; a store-room, bar, and a small private apartment for ladies. Altogether, although I had to pay my labourers four shillings a day, the whole building did not cost me more than my brother paid for three months' rent of his hotel. I gave the travelling world to understand that I intended to devote my establishment principally to the entertainment of ladies, and the care of those who might fall ill on the route, and I found the scheme answered admirably. And yet, although the speculation paid well, I soon grew as weary of my life in Gorgona as I had been at Cruces; and when I found my brother proof against all persuasion to quit the Isthmus, I began to entertain serious thoughts of leaving him.
Nor was it altogether my old roving inclination which led me to desire a change, although I dare say it had something to do with it. My present life was not agreeable for a woman with the least delicacy or refinement; and of female society I had none. Indeed, the females who crossed my path were about as unpleasant specimens of the fair sex as one could well wish to avoid. With very few exceptions, those who were not bad were very disagreeable, and as the majority came from the Southern States of America, and showed an instinctive repugnance against any one whose countenance claimed for her kindred with their slaves, my position was far from a pleasant one. Not that it ever gave me any annoyance; they were glad of my stores and comforts, I made money out of their wants; nor do I think our bond of connection was ever closer; only this, if any of them came to me sick and suffering (I say this out of simple justice to myself), I forgot everything, except that she was my sister, and that it was my duty to help her.
I may have before said that the citizens of the New Granada Republic had a strong prejudice against all Americans. It is not difficult to assign a cause for this. In the first place, many of the negroes, fugitive from the Southern States, had sought refuge in this and the other States of Central America, where every profession was open to them; and as they were generally superior men—evinced perhaps by their hatred of their old condition and their successful flight—they soon rose to positions of eminence in New Granada. In the priesthood, in the army, in all municipal offices, the self-liberated negroes were invariably found in the foremost rank; and the people, for some reason—perhaps because they recognised in them superior talents for administration—always respected them more than, and preferred them to, their native rulers. So that, influenced naturally by these freed slaves, who bore themselves before their old masters bravely and like men, the New Granada people were strongly prejudiced against the Americans. And in the second and third places, they feared their quarrelsome, bullying habits—be it remembered that the crowds to California were of the lowest sorts, many of whom have since fertilised Cuban and Nicaraguan soil—and dreaded their schemes for annexation. To such an extent was this amusingly carried, that when the American Railway Company took possession of Navy Bay, and christened it Aspinwall, after the name of their Chairman, the native authorities refused to recognise their right to name any portion of the Republic, and pertinaciously returned all letters directed to Aspinwall, with "no such place known" marked upon them in the very spot for which they were intended. And, in addition to this, the legal authorities refused to compel any defendant to appear who was described as of Aspinwall, and put every plaintiff out of court who described himself as residing in that unrecognised place.
Under these circumstances, my readers can easily understand that when any Americans crossed the Isthmus, accompanied by their slaves, the Cruces and Gorgona people were restlessly anxious to whisper into their ears offers of freedom and hints how easy escape would be. Nor were the authorities at all inclined to aid in the recapture of a runaway slave. So that, as it was necessary for the losers to go on with the crowd, the fugitive invariably escaped. It is one of the maxims of the New Granada constitution—as it is, I believe, of the English—that on a slave touching its soil his chains fall from him. Rather than irritate so dangerous a neighbour as America, this rule was rarely supported; but I remember the following instance of its successful application.
A young American woman, whose character can be best described by the word "vicious," fell ill at Gorgona, and was left behind by her companions under the charge of a young negro, her slave, whom she treated most inhumanly, as was evinced by the poor girl's frequent screams when under the lash. One night her cries were so distressing, that Gorgona could stand it no longer, but broke into the house and found the chattel bound hand and foot, naked, and being severely lashed. Despite the threats and astonishment of the mistress, they were both carried off on the following morning, before the alcalde, himself a man of colour, and of a very humane disposition. When the particulars of the case were laid before him, he became strongly excited, and called upon the woman to offer an explanation of her cruelty. She treated it with the coolest unconcern—"The girl was her property, worth so many dollars, and a child at New Orleans; had misbehaved herself, and been properly corrected. The alcalde must be drunk or a fool, or both together, to interfere between an American and her property." Her coolness vanished, however, when the alcalde turned round to the girl and told her that she was free to leave her mistress when she liked; and when she heard the irrepressible cheering of the crowded court-hut at the alcalde's humanity and boldness, and saw the slave's face flush with delight at the judge's words, she became terribly enraged; made use of the most fearful threats, and would have wreaked summary vengeance on her late chattel had not the clumsy soldiery interfered. Then, with demoniac refinement of cruelty, she bethought herself of the girl's baby at New Orleans still in her power, and threatened most horrible torture to the child if its mother dared to accept the alcalde's offer.