On board steamer COLUMBIA, at sea.
THE FIRST DEATH
CHRISTMAS EVE. - It has been an exceedingly quiet Christmas Eve, to-day. It is because a young child of one of the cabin passengers is lying very ill - suddenly taken last night - and so no one is willing to be noisy, or even passably cheerful, for that matter. All act as if they were related by blood to the child. And it is natural it should be so - a ship's passengers on a long voyage become as one family.
CHRISTMAS NIGHT. - The child died last evening, and some of the lady passengers sat up with the corpse all night. At ten this morning, we all assembled on the lower guard aft, and listened with uncovered heads, to a brief sermon by the clergyman (Rev. Mr. Fackler) and the reading of the Episcopal burial service - the capstan with a national flag over it served for a pulpit, and meanwhile the first officer and boatswain held the canvassed corpse with its head resting on their shoulders and its feet upon the taffrail - at the conclusion there was a breathless pause; then the minister said "Earth unto earth - ashes unto ashes - dust unto dust!" - a sharp plunge of the weighted body into the sea, a shudder from the startled passengers, a wild shriek from the young mother (a mere girl), and all was over.
Within three hours, with that solemn presence gone out of the ship, cheerfulness and vivacity reigned again.
THE FALL OF THE ISAAC
DECEMBER 28th. - Isaac's upward flight culminated yesterday in a raffle, and now he is fallen! Hobnobbing with the chief officers, and hail fellow well met with everybody yesterday - to-day, degraded to the ranks, and none so poor as to take notice of him. You see he has often excited sympathy by displaying his late wife's jewelry (he said she died six weeks ago,) and mourning over it. But yesterday he got up that raffle said it grieved him to the heart to have those mementoes of his lost one about him - said her dear jewelry constantly reminded him of happy days he should never again see - and so he gathered it together and raffled it off for three hundred and fifty dollars ! He feels easier after that, no doubt. His lacerated heart will be able to stand it for awhile, now, perhaps.
The reaction dethroned him from his high place among the passengers. When they reflected that he won all the jewelry himself that was worth having - that what they got was pinch beck; and that he had either been heartless enough to part with his dead wife's jewelry under shameful circumstances, or else he had no wife and had presumed to lie to his betters; they felt ashamed of themselves, and from that moment Isaac was tabu! For two days, now, he has been unmercifully snubbed at every turn, and already an act of his that won applause at first is quoted against him to further damn him. I refer to his having prevailed with the good-hearted Captain to take a modest-looking young German girl out of the steerage, where she was constantly subject to insult, and put her in the second cabin. They say now, that he was actuated by none but selfish motives, and had rascally designs against her. They do say that when a man starts down hill everybody is ready to help him with a kick, and I suppose it is so.
Last night, as usual, Isaac intruded upon the Captain's dog-watch lunch - which is, or should be, sacred to himself - and got into trouble. One of the passengers put something into his tea that came near making him throw up his boots. But some people will never learn anything. He went into the Captain's room to-day, uninvited, and fell into another trap provided for him by a passenger. He found a bottle - he always drinks from bottles wherever he finds them, whether asked to do it or not. He drank from that bottle, and then retired to his stateroom and has been patiently disgorging ever since.
A LEGEND FROM THE CAPTAIN
We have been sailing placidly along the coast of Guatemala all day - a broad, low land, densely clad in a green, tropical vegetation, among which the cocoanut tree is prominent; occasionally we see a thatched native hut. In full view are three noble mountains - tall, symmetrical cones, with sides furrowed with wrinkle-like valleys veiled in a dreamy, purple mist that is charming to the eye, and summits swathed in a grand turban of rolling clouds. They say these are volcanoes, but we cannot see any smoke. No matter - it is a fairy landscape that is very pleasant to look upon.
"Do you see that ship anchored yonder?" The young lady addressed said she did see the ship.
"Well," said Captain W., "she's a whaler. She's trying out oil. The first time I ever was along here was seventeen years ago. I didn't know anything about whaling then, bless you. It was in the night, just after dark, and just where you see that ship there now, I saw a ship all on fire! I laid-to immediately and ordered out a boat's crew, and says, 'Pull, boys, for your life! Don't miss a stroke - don't you lose a minute! Tell the Captain not to lose his grip. I'll lay here a week and give him all the help I can, and then I'll take him and his crew to California, and do the very best I know how by 'em.' Well, we lay-to and waited and waited - all the passengers on deck and anxious for the boat to come back with the awful news. But nine o'clock, no boat; ship still burning, and glaring out on the black ocean like a sun dropped out of the sky. Ten o'clock - no boat; passengers beginning to get tired, and two or three quit and went to bed. Eleven - no boat; and one by one they sidled off to roost - give it up, you sec all gone but me and one solitary motherly old soul - me marching slow up and down the deck and she gazing out across the water at the burning ship. We were just so until half-past 11, and then we heard the sound of oars. We closed up to the railing and stood by for them. Pretty soon the boat ranged up alongside - I tell you I felt awful - something made me hanker to look down into that boat, and yet something held me back. The officer of the boat reported: 'The ship ain't burning, sir; (I felt relieved then;) he says he's in big luck - is full of oil, and ready for home, and so they're cooking doughnuts in the fat and having a grand blow-out, illumination and jollification. But he's uncommon thankful for the good intentions you've shown, and hopes you'll accept this lot of A 1 sea-turkles.' The old woman leaned over the rail and shaded her eyes from the lantern with her hand, and she see them varmints flopping their flippers about in the boat and she says:
" 'For the land's sake! - I've sot here, and sot here, and sot here all this blessed night cal'latin' you'd fetch a boat-load of sorrowful roasted corpses, and now it ain't nothing but a lot of nasty cussed mud-turkles - it's a dern thieving shame, that's my opinion of it !' "
SAN JUAN AND CHOLERA
DECEMBER 29th. - One sea voyage is ended anyhow. We have arrived at San Juan del Sur, and must leave the ship and cross the Isthmus - not to-day, though. They have posted a notice on the ship that the cholera is raging among a battalion of troops just arrived from New York, and so we are not permitted to go ashore to-day. And to the sea-weary eyes of some of our people, no doubt, bright green hills never looked so welcome, so enchanting, so altogether lovely, as these do that lie here within pistol-shot of us. But the law is spoken, and so half the ship's family are looking longingly ashore, or discussing the cholera news fearfully, and the other half are in the after cabin, singing boisterously and carrying on like a troop of wild school children.
GREYTOWN, January 1st. - While we lay all night at San Juan, the baggage was sent ashore in lighters, and next morning we departed ourselves. We found San Juan to consist of a few tumble-down frame shanties - they call them hotels - nestling among green verdure and overshadowed by picturesque little hills. The spot where we landed was crowded with horses, mules, ambulances and half-clad yellow natives, with bowie-knives two feet long, and as broad as your hand, strapped to their waists. I thought these barefooted scoundrels were soldiers, but no, they were merely citizens in civil life. Here and there on the beach moved a soiled and ragged white woman, to whom the sight of our ship must have been as a vision of Paradise; for here a vast ship-load of passengers had been kept in exile for fifteen days through the wretched incompetency of one man - the Company's agent on the Isthmus. He had sent a steamer empty to San Francisco, when he knew well that this multitude of people were due at Greytown. They will finish their journey, now, in our ship.
Our party of eight - we had made it up the night before - being the first boat-load to leave the ship, was entitled to the first choice of the ambulances, or the equestrian accommodations that were to convey us the twelve miles we must go by land between San Juan and Virgin Bay, on Lake Nicaragua. Some of the saddle-horses and mules - many of them, in fact - looked very well; but if there was any choice between the ambulances, or especially between the miraculous scarecrows that were to haul them, it was hardly perceptible. You never saw such harness in your life, nor such mules, nor such drivers. They were funny individually and funny in combination. Except the ghastly sores on the animals' backs, where the crazy harness had chafed, and scraped, and scarified - that part of it would move anybody's pity for the poor things.
We climbed into one of the largest of the faded red ambulances (mud wagons we call them in the mountains), with four little sore-backed rabbits hitched to it, and cleared for Virgin Bay. The driver commenced by beating and banging his team and cursing them like a furious maniac, in bad Spanish, and he kept it up all through that twelve-mile journey of three hours and a half, over a hard, level, beautiful road. We envied the people who were not crippled and could ride horseback.
But we clattered along pretty lively, and were a jolly party. The first thing the ladies noticed as we lost sight of the sea, and wound in among an overshadowing growth of dewy vines and forest trees, was a "dear, dear little baby - oh, see the darling!" - a vile, distempered, mud-colored native brat, making dirt-pies in front of an isolated cabin; and the first thing the men noticed was - was - but they could not make it out; a guide board perhaps, or a cross, or the modest grave-stone of some ill fated stranger. But it was none of these. When we drew nearer it turned out to be a sign nailed to a tree, and it said "Try Ward's shirts!" There was some round abuse indulged in, then, of Ward and plantation bitters men, and all such people, who invade all sacred places with their rascally signs, and mar every landscape one might gaze upon in worship, and turn to a farce every sentimental thought that enters his brain. I know that if I were to go to old Niagara, and stand with his mists blowing in my face and his voice thundering in my ear, I would swell with a noble inspiration and say, "Oh, grand, sublime, magnificent - " and then behold on his front, "S. T. 1860 X Plantation Bitters," and be incensed. It is a shame.
THE PROCESSION UNDER WAY
The bright, fresh green on every hand, the delicious softness and coolness of the air (it had just showered a little before we started), the interest of unknown birds and flowers and trees, the delightful new sensation of the bumping and rattling of the ambulance - everything so cheery and lively, as compared with our old dull monotony and shoreless sea on board the ship - wrought our party up to a pitch of joyous animation and enthusiasm that I would have thought impossible with such dry old sticks. I ask pardon of the ladies - and even of the gentle men, also. All hands voted "the Nicaragua route forever!" [N.B. - They used to do that every day or two - and then every other day or two they would damn the Nicaragua route forever. Such are the ways of passengers, all the world over.]
About every two hundred yards we came across a little summer-house of a peanut stand at the roadside, with raven haired, splendid-eyed Nicaragua damsels standing in attitudes of careless grace behind them - damsels buff-colored, like an envelope - damsels who were always dressed the same way: in a single flowing gown of fancifully figured calico, "gathered" across the breast (they are singularly full in the bust, the young ones), and ruffled all round, near the bottom of the skirt. They have white teeth, and pleasant, smiling, winning faces. They are virtuous according to their lights, but I guess their lights are a little dim. Two of these picturesque native girls were exceedingly beautiful - such liquid, languishing eyes! such pouting lips! such glossy, luxuriant hair! such ravishing, incendiary expression! such grace! such voluptuous forms, and such precious little drapery about them! such - tooth" -
"But you just prospect one of them heifers with a fine-tooth" -
This attempted interruption was from Brown, and procured his banishment at once. This man will not consent to see what is attractive, alone, but always unearths the disagreeable features of everything that comes under his notice.
These groups of dark maidens keep for sale a few cups of coffee, tea or chocolate, some bananas, oranges, pineapples, hard boiled eggs, a dozen bottles of their vile native liquors, some ornamental cups carved from gourds of the calabash tree, a monkey or two - and their prices were so moderate that, in spite of all orders and remonstrances to the contrary, the steerage passengers have been overloading their stomachs with all sorts of beverages and edibles, and will pay for it in Asiatic cholera before they are many days older, no doubt.
Our road was smooth, level, and free from mud and dust, and the scenery in its neighborhood was pleasing, though not particularly striking. Many of the trees were starred all over with pretty blossoms. There was no lack of vegetation, and occasionally the balmy air came to us laden with a delicious fragrance. We passed two or three high hills, whose bold fronts, free from trees or shrubs, were thickly carpeted with softest, greenest grass - a picture our eyes could never tire of. Sometimes birds of handsome plumage flitted by, and we heard the blythe songs of others as we rode through the forests. But the monkeys claimed all attention. All hands wanted to see a real, live, wild monkey skirmishing among his native haunts. Our interest finally moderated somewhat in the native women; the birds; the calabash trees, with their gourd-like fruit; the huge, queer knots on trees, that were said to be ants' nests; the lime trees; and even in a singular species of cactus, long, slender and green, that climbed to the very tops of great trees, and completely hid their trunks and branches, and choked them to death in its winding folds - so like an ugly, endless serpent; but never did the party cease to consider the wild monkey a charming novelty and a joy forever.
MASQUERADING ON THE ROAD
Our four hundred passengers on horseback, muleback, and in four-mule ambulances, formed the wildest, raggedest and most uncouth procession I ever saw. It reminded me of the fantastic masquerading pageants they used to get up on the Fourth of July in the Western States, or on Mardigras Day in New Orleans. The steerage passengers travelled on muleback, chiefly, with coats, oil-skin carpet sacks, and blankets dangling around their saddles. Some of the saddles were new and good, but others were in all possible stages of mutilation and decay. There were not a dozen good riders in the two hundred and fifty that went on horseback, but every man seemed to consider that inasmuch as the animals belonged to "the Company," it was a stern duty to ride them to death, if possible, and they tried hard to do it. Such racing and yelling, and beating and banging and spurring, and such bouncing of blanket bundles, and flapping and fluttering of coat-tails, and such frantic scampering of the multitude of mules, and bobbing up and down of the long column of men, and rearing and charging of struggling ambulances in their midst, I never saw before, and I never enjoyed anything so much.
I never saw Brown's equanimity so disturbed as it was that day, either. The philosopher had received a charge at San Francisco - a widow, with three children and a servant girl. Every day on the trip, he had been obliged to go down among the sweltering stenches of the ship's hold, to pull and haul Mrs. B.'s trunks out from among piles of other baggage, and rummage among them for a shirt for Johnny, or a bib for Tommy, or a shawl for the mother or the maid, or a diaper for the baby, but these vexations were nothing to his Isthmus transportation troubles. He had to take his party horseback, and in order to keep them together amid the confusion of the procession, he tied his five mules together, end to end, and marched in single file - the forward horse's tail made fast to the next one's nose, and so on. He rode the leading horse himself, with the baby in his arms; Mrs. B. and the two boys came next, and the servant girl brought up the rear. It was a solemnly comical spectacle. Everything went well, though, till the racing began, and then the philosopher's mule got his ambition up and led the party a merry dance. Brown tried to hold him back with one hand for a while, and then triced the baby up under his left arm, and pulled back with both hands. This had a good deal of effect, but still the little detachment darted through the main procession like the wind, making a sensation wherever it went, and was greeted with many a whack and many a laugh. Occasionally Brown's mule stopped and fell to bucking, and then his other animals closed up and got tangled together in a helpless snarl. Of course, Brown had to unlimber the baby and straighten things out again. He swore hard, but under his breath, and sweated as no man ever sweated before. The entire procession had arrived at Virgin Bay and were stowed on the boat before he got there. But his beasts had grown tranquil enough by that time. Their heads were all down, and it was hard to tell which looked the most jaded and melancholy - themselves or their riders. It was like intruding a funeral cortege upon the boisterous hilarity of the balance of the ship's family.
ALL QUIET AGAIN
Comfortably quartered on the little steamer, we sat in the shade and lunched, smoked, compared notes of our jolly little scamper across the Isthmus, bought handsome mahogany walking-canes from the natives, and finally relapsed into pensive and placid gazing out upon the rippling waters of Lake Nicaragua and the two majestic mountains that tower up out of its blue depths and wrap their green summits in the fleecy clouds.
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