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 [Pg 18]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, [Pg 19]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 £10 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 [Pg 20]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 [Pg 21]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 pièce de résistance 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 [Pg 22]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 [Pg 23]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.