DECK AND PORT
by REV. WALTER COLTON
Extracts from CHAPTER VI.
SKETCHES OF VALPARAISO. (1846)
ASPECT OF THE CITY.
Saturday, March 7. Valparaiso, at a first glance, instead of justifying the name it bears — the vale of Paradise — might rather be called some outpost of purgatory. Its wild crags, its scorched hills, and dark glens might well be supposed to lead to that intermediate abode of condemned spirits. You are puzzled to know why a city should be there. Without encroaching on the sea, there is hardly room enough, between the base of the steep acclivities and the surge, to set up a fisherman’s hut. The harbor is but little better than an open roadstead. A Norther is an admonition to all vessels to slip their cables.
Yet Valparaiso is a city, and one which, having once seen, you will never forget. It will stand alone in your after-dreams like Jacob’s ladder. Like the rounds in that airy vision, its buildings ascend, roof over roof, till they seem to topple in the sky. One violent shake of an earthquake would precipitate the whole into the sea. And yet these terrible visitations are constantly throwing out their premonitions. There is not a building whose walls have not vibrated to their force. There is not a rock on which they rest, but is of volcanic origin. The soaring peaks of the Cordilleras, which overhang them, rest on craters that may at any moment throw them heaven-high. And yet who does not sleep sound in Valparaiso ? Such is peril, when it has become an old familiar acquaintance.
GROUPS ON THE QUAY.
We landed from our boat on the jetty, which has been thrown out from the beach to prevent the necessity of debarking in the surf. The quay was alive with boatmen, cracking their jokes over their water-melons and coarse bread. A fat friar was seen straying among them, willing to shrive the most wayward for a large melon. One fellow, who looked as if he had obliquities enough to justify some effacing process, made light of the proffered shrift. He thought a green melon would pay.
Near by sat a Chileno on a stone, which swelled up from the pavement, tantalizing the strings of a guitar, while a little cloud of tobacco-smoke curled up around the high cone of his felt hat. The only accompaniment was the sharp creak of a file, with which a muleteer was sharpening the rowel of his spurs, which resembled a circular saw, except that the teeth were much longer.
Here a beggar, who had lost a leg, hobbled up to us, wearing around his neck a label, showing that he had the permission of the police to solicit alms on Tuesdays and Saturdays. Poor fellow! if his limb was lost in a good cause, he ought to be allowed to solicit charity when he can get it. And if it was lost even in a scuffle, it would not be in my heart to deny him a penny. What a world is this in which we dwell ! How is it filled with paupers, spurs, tobacco, guitars, water-melons, and absolving monks ; all jangling and jargoning along together to dusty death ! What an incongruous mass the grave covers !
Monday, March 9. I encountered, in my rambles to-day, a specimen of Chilean horsemanship. The costume of the rider was in wild harmony with his occupation. His hat rose in a high cone, like that of a whirling dervish in Turkey. His poncho, resembling a large shawl, fell in careless folds around his person. His gaiters rose to the knee ; his heels were armed with a huge pair of silver-mounted spurs, while a brace of pistols peered from the holster of his saddle-bow. He was mounted on a powerful animal, impatient of the bit, and sure of foot as the mountain roe. The strong muscles betrayed their swelling lines in his limbs; the dilating nostril was full of panting force, while his arching neck seemed clothed with thunder. He was such a steed as you would choose for that last decisive charge, in which a Waterloo is to be won or lost.
His rider knew him well and gave him the rein ; on he dashed, over hill and vale, with the speed of the wind. Now shaking the toppling crags with his iron hoof, now plunging down the steep ravine, now leaping, with frightful force, the sudden chasm ; never missing his foothold, never throwing his rider. Both were safe where the neck of neither seemed worth a farthing. I have seen the Tartar ride at Constantinople, and witnessed, with silent admiration, the Grand Sultan’s horsemanship, but he is outdone by the Chileno.
A company of circus-riders, from Europe, came here a few years since to astonish the Chileans. But they soon found they had brought their ware to a wrong market. The Chilenos took the business out of their hands ; and so far outdid them that they suddenly disappeared, and have not been heard of in these parts since. It was like a buffalo entering a herd of deer to astonish them with his fleetness, or like a bull attempting a race with one of Baldwin’s locomotives.
The Chilean women betray their Spanish blood. It is seen in their stately forms, their firm elastic step, their nut-brown complexion, their large black eyes, and their earnestness of manner, which is full of silent, significant force. They wear their hair in two plaits, which are sometimes coiled into a turban and interlaced with flowers, and at others flows from a slight fillet, quite down to the heel. They use no stays ; the tide of nature ebbs and flows without constraint. The rich shawl which covers the neck and shoulders, neglects at times its occupation, and the silk stocking forgets now and then that it has taken the veil.
They are fond of attentions, and will much sooner excuse a liberty, which flows from admiration, than a neglect, which results from indifference ; still they are not considered as very exacting. What they want is the homage of the heart. Civility that has no soul in it, they consider a mockery. Love is consequently with them a passion. As daughters, they are wild and thoughtless ; as mothers, fond of their children and attached to their homes. The most sober flower will often blossom from the bud that has danced the most lightly in the sunbeam.
Tuesday, March 10. I encountered to-day in the environs of Valparaiso, a long string of donkeys, laden with vegetables and fruit from Quillota, some forty miles distant. The little hardy fellows were plodding along in single file, covered up under their huge panniers, and turning this way or that to the cry of their driver, who brought up the rear. I never could encounter one of these creatures without a sentiment of pity and even respect. He seems as one doomed to drudgery, merely because nature has wronged him in making him up. And then his patience — it is a model. He has long ears it is true, but then he never, like those who consider themselves his betters, tries to conceal them. He is an honest ass !
The markets of Valparaiso are supplied from valleys in the interior. The grounds in the immediate neighborhood are, for many months in the year, parched up with drouth. Large tracts of land, well suited to the harrow, are herbless from want of means to irrigate them. Springs have been hunted, and rocks bored almost half-way to the earth’s centre, but in vain. Even the monks have tried their miraculous charms, but nature’s great Nile obeys no such incantations. Their fleece, unlike that of Gideon, remained dry. No snow falls on these valleys, and no rain, except in the three winter months. The earth becomes baked and broken into deep fissures. When the winds are abroad the dust is driven over it in clouds thick enough to bury a Gipsy encampment.
HUTS OF THE NATIVES.
The huts of the native peasantry are built of reeds, plastered with mud and thatched with straw. They have seldom more than one room, and are generally without a floor. Here the inmates sit, sleep, and work in wigwam-life. They seldom look beyond their present wants. Their industry ebbs or flows as plenty or penury prevail. Out of these murky cabins beauty sometimes emerges in a combination of charms that might stir the chisel of a Praxiteles.
The females are generally pictures of health and animation. Their diet is coarse bread and fruit. They know nothing of the luxuries of the table, and seem to care as little. They are fond of music and dancing, and throw an energy into their motions which would astonish even a Shaker. The quadrille has not sufficient action in it. They prefer the fandango. The old are grouped around the broad circle in which the young couple spring to the vibrations of the guitar or violin. The short dress of the female, and the prurient motions of both, are at war with all our sentiments of propriety.
Wednesday, March 11. The features of Valparaiso, which strike the stranger with the greatest force, are perhaps the elegant articles of ornament which are presented in the fancy shops. They seem as much out of place here as a jewel in a swine’s snout. And yet they are not out of place, for higher forms of fashionable life are seldom encountered. Those little cottages, which gleam from the toppling crags, are garnished with furniture on which the Parisian artist has exhausted his skill. From the balcony rolls out upon the wind the most exquisite music of harp and voice. Such strains from amid such a savage scene ! It is like Proserpine, crossing the gloomy Styx, crowned with the flowers of paradise.
AMERICAN AND ENGLISH SOCIETY.
The English and Americans here are singularly free from those rivalries and jealousies, which are the besetting sin of foreign residents. They flow together with a congeniality of spirit, which is the source of a thousand pleasures to them as well as the stranger. Their society is the all-redeeming charm of Valparaiso. Their hospitality is open as the day, and warm as their soft clime. You forget in their company the rude rocks and barren hills around you. The earth without may be covered with brambles, but you feel for the time in a sort of Eden whose flowers have escaped the primal malediction. I do not wonder that this is the favorite port with the officers of the Pacific squadron. They always leave it with regret, and cherish for it the most affectionate remembrance.
Thursday, March 12. I accompanied last evening several of my wardroom companions to a Chilean tertulia. A broad flight of stairs took us to a large and brilliantly lighted saloon, where we were met by the lady of the mansion who gave us her hand, and welcomed us to Valparaiso. It would have been a little embarrassing to encounter the flash of so many eyes, but for the ease and tact of our accomplished hostess. Instead of taking us around the saloon and introducing us, amid a general suspension of conversation, to the company, which would have embarrassed all parties, she went to talking with us, and in a few minutes managed to introduce us to several ladies, as unceremoniously as if there had been no design in it. This artless tact continued till we were introduced to every lady and gentleman present.
All were at ease and full of talk, though some of us had but a limited range of Spanish at our command. But a great deal of conversation may be made out of a few words, when the heart is glad. The ladies never corrected the wrong word, and affected to understand it just as well as if it had been the right one. Some of them attempted English with the amiable purpose, no doubt, of relieving our blunders by making as many of their own.
The costume of the ladies differed but little from what you meet with at evening parties in the United States. The hair, which betrayed great care in its arrangement, was ornamented with natural flowers. The dress, generally of a light airy material, had short sleeves, rather low in the neck, with a short, full skirt. The reason assigned for this is, that the wearer may be less embarrassed in dancing, but, perhaps, the pride of a well-turned ankle is an additional motive. The gentlemen were more sedate than the ladies, but their conversation had not half the versatility. At twelve o’clock the tertulia broke up. The lady of the house gave us her hand at parting with a buena noche.
MODE OF TRAVELLING.
Friday, March 13. Went on shore to-day to take a ride. This has to be done either on the saddle, or in a vehicle resembling our chaise, but of much ruder construction. The latter is preferred for long distances. One horse trots within the shafts, another at his left, on which the postillion is mounted, while half a dozen others accompany the vehicle to act as relays. If these give out, the lasso is resorted to, and some half-wild horse, who a few moments before snuffed the wind in freedom, is within the traces. The postillion seldom troubles himself with the question whether the animal has ever been thoroughly broken to the harness. The wilder, the more speed, and therefore all the better for his purpose. He is master of his business, and seemingly, of every thing in nature that can conduce to its success. His driving is like that of Jehu. You expect every moment the old quill-wheel, in which you are embarked, will fly into a thousand pieces. But like the hurdle of the doomed, it still holds together, hurrying you, if not to the gallows, to the grave.
If you take to the saddle you will probably find your stirrups of wood, resembling in shape and size the large beetle with which a New-England farmer splits his rails. Their weight is seemingly relieved by grotesque carving ; in the side is a sharp excavation, sufficiently deep to admit one-third of the foot. The saddle is made of raw hide, and a frame which an Indian’s hatchet might have shaped. It rises up before and behind like a well-horned half-moon. The bridle has one recommendation, a tremendous bit. But with all this you are on a horse, wild as he may be, that is sure of foot. You can no more get a stumble out of him, were you so disposed, than Lucifer could a defection from duty out of Abdiel, or a Whig a bank- vote out of a Democrat.
POLICE OF THE CITY.
The police of Valparaiso, which once seldom protected the innocent, or punished the guilty, is now unrivalled in efficiency. Its vigilance reaches your person and property through every hour of the day and night. You are safe even in spite of your own negligence. If, for instance, you leave your shop with the window unbolted, you will find the next morning a padlock on it, and one which you cannot remove without paying a fine of three dollars. If you dine out, tarry late at the wine, get tipsy, and can’t find your way home, a watchman picks you up, puts you into a chaise, finds out by some means where you live, takes you to your door, and delivers you to your waiting wife, with the good-humored remark that you are a little indisposed. What a capital arrangement for those who have more wine than wit in them !
If you wake up in the night, find one of your family sick, and want a physician, you have only to hand his name to the watchman near your door, who passes it to another, and he to another still, till it reaches its destination, and you soon have the physician at your side. His prescription must perhaps be taken to an apothecary ; it is handed to the watch, passed on, and in a few minutes back comes the medicament required. What bachelor might not venture to get married in Valparaiso?
I visited this afternoon the Protestant burial-ground, which occupies a portion of one of the hills which overlook our anchorage. The situation has been selected with good judgment, and the ground evinces taste and propriety in the arrangement. Here rest many sailors far away from their native shores. A humble slab, erected by their messmates, gives you their names and that of the ship to which they were attached ; and sometimes a nautical epitaph, like the following :
“ Here lies the rigging, spars, and hull
Of sailing-master David Mull”
This to a landsman seems trifling with our poor mortality ; not so to the sailor. His technicalities have with him a meaning and a force which, in his judgment, more than sanction their use on the most grave and melancholy occasions. He would pray in this dialect even were life’s taper flickering in the socket, or his soul trembling on the verge of despair.
In the Catholic burial-ground, which adjoins the Protestant, stands the beautiful monument of Portales. The genius of History is recording his glorious deeds, Grief lamenting his early doom, and Hope pointing to a fruition in the skies. Near this monument I encountered a youthful mother in weeds, leading her little orphan boy. She carried a bunch of flowers in her hand, and as she came near a new- made grave, kneeled down at its head, and planted them there. Her child kissed them, but when she attempted it her silent tears fell fast on their tender leaves. A bird lit on the tree, which cast its shadows on the grave, and poured a wild sweet strain as if to wean the mourner from her grief; but she heeded it not. Her child turned and listened ; her eye fell on his ; she heard the bird. Nature triumphs over bereavements through those we love and who still survive.
THE INDIAN MOTHER.
Tuesday, March 17. The Indian mother still adheres to the primitive method of carrying her child. Instead of supporting it in her arms, with the unhealthful inclination of person which a burden there will always induce, she tosses it on her back, into the bunt of her shawl, and walks off erect as the Indian’s tree, which stood up so straight it leaned backward.
When hunger overtakes it she will feel a slight pull on one of the long braids in which her hair falls over its form ; and when she takes it out of this travelling cradle to nurse it, there is something new and fresh in its first look : true, it has not been out of her sight for more than an hour, but this with a mother is a long time. But her heart is now running over with happiness,
FAREWELL TO VALPARAISO.
Sweet Valparaiso — fare thee well !
Thy steep romantic shore,
And toppling crags, where wildly dwell
The echoes, which thy billows pour
As o’er the rocks their anthems swell —
Shall greet my pilgrim steps no more.
When they whose tread is on thy steep,
Have down to death’s dim chambers gone,
Where harp and lute in silence sleep,
Thy sweet sea-dirge will still roll on.
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