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A Letter from Havana by F. C. N.

HAVANA, Feb. 14, 1875.

It is not a very long sail from home to Cuba—you pass into the Bay of Havana on the morning of the fifth day, if you have luck—but the sky and land you left behind at this wintry season at home are very different from those you find on arriving here. It is a great change in so short a time from the dun-colored shore and the frozen river to the waving verdure of the Cuban coast and the sparkling blue and white of the water. We made the land before daylight, and, the rules forbidding us to enter the harbor till sunrise, we bobbed up and down for two or three hours a mile or so outside of the Moro Castle, which guards the narrow entrance to Havana. The moon was so brilliant that we did not have to wait for day to enjoy the scene before us: in fact, it could not have been improved by the sun. The fortress of Moro crouches on a bed of rock, rearing a tall lighthouse aloft. Its Moorish turrets have a soft rounded outline, and the undulations of the shore blend with the masonry of the castle; only a sharp retiring angle here and there gives an occasional glimpse of a grim purpose. When the Moro light is put out, ships in the offing may enter the bay. The mouth of the harbor is not more than half a mile wide, and on the shore opposite to the Moro the town of Havana comes down to the water's edge, withdrawing up the bay on one hand, and up the sea-coast on the other. A pilot is not necessary except for the perquisites of office, but one comes on board, and with anxious countenance directs the ship straight on through clear water for a mile, when the anchor is dropped.

Just as day breaks on the high ground on the Moro shore, and the growing light brings houses and trees and ships into relief, with all their rich variety of color, the scene is memorable and full of beauty. On the green slope behind the castle, while the outline of the tropical vegetation is only stealing into view, there is hid, and yet visible, a long, low building of yellow columns, blue facade, brown gables and red tiles: if you shut out the rest of the landscape with your hands, you would say it was a picture by Fortuny. The expanse of the bay is fine, and the large fleet at anchor furnishes it but thinly. Townward, as the sun's rays begin to dissipate the brown shadows and define shape and color, the city sparkles like a gorgeous mosaic; but in another half hour, when the sun is higher, the hazy softness has departed and the city is ablaze with light, so that your eyes can scarcely look at it. Then, if you have seen it earlier, it loses its charm.

I was jealous of Havana from what I had heard and read of it: if the shore-line, and the entrance, and the bay, and the scene were finer than Rio, I was prepared to be angry; but Rio is grand and Havana is pretty, so that one may like both and not divide his allegiance. A patchwork of good pictures in the Moorish vein of town, and shore, and water would reproduce, and yet not copy, all that Havana has to offer; but there is not a picture in the world that aspires to the grandeur of Rio. But I won't deny the sparkle and brilliancy of Havana. At this moment the sky is of a perfect "Himmel-blau." I can see from my window, near the roof, the rich, harmonious Moorish blending of varied colors in the houses; and beyond these "the white feet of the wind shine along the sea." A ship with all sail set is coming into port, the white-capped waves rolling her along before the stiff sea-breeze. Wind is the bane of the place. It sets in to blow, as the sailors say, soon after daylight nine days in ten, and blows all day, and sometimes far into the night. It is not always the soft, perennial zephyr of tradition, but often chill and raw, and then there is no escape from it except to shut yourself in your room; and that means hermetically sealing, for when you close a window here you close a shutter, and thus, if you shut out the breeze, you shut the light out also. The doors and windows are not meant to exclude the air, and so when the breeze gets on a frolic it whirls up stairs and down—goeth, in fact, where it listeth; and sometimes one feels it going through him like a knife.

The houses are built in one width of rooms round a hollow square; consequently, when you put your boots out you put them out of doors. In the midst of the house, with the sky overhead, the umbrageous palm tree and banana spread their broad leaves. The rooms are high and white, with little furniture, and no curtains, with open ceiling of painted rafters, and iron gratings, like a prison's bars, shutting out the street in the front of the house. Behind these gratings the passer-by may see the Cuban family arranged in two prim rows of arm-chairs vis-à-vis, or gathered about the bars as if looking for some means of escape. Occasionally now in some of the better quarters a child of either sex, but black as night, disports itself in full view, "covered ]by the darkness only." There is an infinite variety of opinion in regard to the clothing necessary to comfort here. I have often found a light overcoat comfortable, but there is a tribe or clan from some Spanish province whose boast it is to wear coat nor vest by day or night. The representatives of the various provinces maintain their individuality here, and preserve for festive occasions the costumes which characterize them in Spain. Some of these are very rich, and many of the men, especially of the lower orders, being stalwart and handsome, their gala appearance is decidedly striking. In the fête in honor of Alfonso XII. there were some beautiful groups of men, women and children in Spanish costumes, dancing in the procession with silk emblems and flower wreaths, and singing provincial songs. Others were mounted on the splendid Andalusian horses, which make one's mouth water with desire to ride them. They are as beautiful as Fromentin and Gérôme have painted them—such eyes and nostrils, and such action! It has taken centuries to produce him, but at last there is a saddle-horse: if only for parade occasions, that is no matter. He is perfect in his kind. The Arab keeps his horse in his tent, but the Cuban keeps his in his house. We should say that the horse-owning Cuban sleeps over a stable, but no doubt to his mind his stable is merely under his room. A rich gentleman in town has encased his horses in a beautiful drawing-room of cedar and satin-wood, and it is rather pleasant than otherwise to pass through it on the way to the other apartments.

The houses of Havana are low; the streets are narrow; the sidewalks ditto: there is an occasional plaza of broad, white glare, which must be intolerable in summer-time. The Prado has trees which are rather Dutch than tropical; and the Paseo, where the driving is, is quite a fine avenue. This afternoon, though it is Lent, the Carnival will rage there. Some people go in masks, but not many; and there are no confetti. It is mainly a parade—rich people turning out in their best, poor people making light of their poverty: the rich gorgeous in apparel, and splendid in equipage, the poor arrayed in some gay, inexpensive motley, and crowded into miserable vehicles. The particolored costumes give an aspect of brightness to the street; but it is a solemn sight to see four Cuban women, of the middle age, drawn by a four-in-hand, arrayed in full ball-dress, powdered and bejeweled, and passing in review of admiring mankind.

The ugliness of the women amounts to a vice, and is unredeemed by any quality such as sometimes palliates plainness of features. I have cried aloud for the beautiful Cuban, but in vain. I am assured that she exists, am told, "My dear fellow, you never made a greater mistake in your life," am poohpoohed in various ways; but I cannot find her. I hear it said that owing to the political chaos here she has retired from public view, but it is not denied that she will go to the Carnival and the opera. I was warned not to expect her at the ball in Alfonso's honor at the Spanish Club, and certainly it was a timely warning. Fancy a long hall of colored marble, pillars running the length of it forming arcades; balconies on both sides hanging over the streets, and full of young men smoking cigarettes; men parading up and down the hall and quizzing the women, who were all seated—two rows of them, hundreds all together—seriously contemplating the male procession: enameled, powdered, attired in the wealth of the Indies, saying nothing, doing nothing, not smiling, not blinking, just sitting there, an awful array of hideousness. After the band struck up and the dancing began, I remained long enough to lose in the music the horrible impression of, the opening scene, and then hurried home. At the opera and the Carnival it is not so positively unendurable, but a handsome face, or a pretty face, or even an intelligent, expressive face, I have not yet seen in a woman in Havana; and at this season of the year, if ever, Havana is Cuba. I don't condemn them—I merely give my luck.

The town is of course full of Spanish military and their accessories, civil functionaries who are all Spanish, money-makers, adventurers, shoddy. The Spanish army is at "the front," posted across or partly across the island on a sort of strong picket-line, fortified by block-houses, whence watch is kept on the movements of the insurgents, who seem to come and go as they please in the Spanish front, and cross the lines with impunity. The Spanish hold the whole seaboard, all important towns and villages, hold the insurgents practically in check, so far as the fertile region of the island is concerned, and from year to year keep military matters just about in statu quo. The insurgents dwell in the wildest portion of the island, often in almost impenetrable woods, living the life of savages, and depending on the bounty of Nature for their daily bread.

So the war lingers. It is not what we would call a war: it is a condition of armed hostility. It is conducted almost wholly at the expense of Spain in men, wholly at the expense of Cuba in money. The Cuban volunteers are a home-guard, but the purse of the Cubans is open. Spain is not loath to dip into it, and taxation for carrying on the government and the war has become very onerous—dreadfully so, in fact, though I believe that the Cubans do not realize it so fully as strangers do. The government is impoverished; the war makes no progress; what becomes of the enormous revenue derived from the taxes? A rich planter said to me dryly, "They are ignorant men: they make mistakes in applying it." Hard things are openly said of all Spanish officials; and all officials, from the captain-general to the harbor pilot, are Spanish. Startling things are heard here every day in political and military discussions. The people think in classes: there is the Spanish view, the Creole view, the foreign view—none very dispassionate, and none very accurate. There is no accepted basis of fact for anything: nobody believes anybody else, and truth here lies in a very deep well. But one thing else is clear. Cuba, so gifted by Nature, is being despoiled by man; and what ought to be a garden will become overgrown with weeds if there is not a change of fortune. There is taxation without representation under an iron despotism: there is an army without war, and the people look on. It is not necessary to find any new means of going to the bad at a gallop. The rich give practical support to the Spanish, and moral support to the insurrection; but if the insurrection should triumph, I can't see how it will benefit the Creole Cubans of property. I think ideas here are confused on the subject, and while they are giving hearty encouragement to neither cause, between the two they are sure to be utterly ruined.

I have spent a week in all on sugar plantations in the interior. I was delightfully entertained, and reveled in the luxury of soft air and out-of-door life. I was on horseback a good deal, riding one of the shuffling little animals they have here, whose gait is so easy that it doesn't amount to motion. The crops are to a great extent still uncut; the green cane, which looks like our broom-corn at a distance, waves in the winds as far as the eye can reach. The country is level, but has a frame of mountain-land. The woods are festooned with air-plants and parasites; palm trees dot the landscape in every direction or run in splendid avenues, sometimes in double rows, alternating with the round, full mamey tree, whose deep green foliage brings into fine relief the white stalk of the palm. The breeze rustles through the broad plantations of bananas and sways the orange groves. The gardens are rich in flowers of brilliant hues. The fields swarm with negroes and ox-carts; the ponderous machinery of the boiling-houses maintains a steady hum; the picturesque buildings are all touched with Fortuny-like tints: there is much to see and much to tell of, but I must have some regard for your patience. I have not finished, but I must stop.

F. C. N.