CHAPTER V: 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

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 [Pg 35]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 [Pg 36]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’hôte, 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 [Pg 37]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’hôte 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 [Pg 38]brush of extraordinary size, and a foaming sea of lather, José 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.”

[Pg 39]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 [Pg 40]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; [Pg 41]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 [Pg 42]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 [Pg 43]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.

[Pg 44]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 [Pg 45]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 [Pg 46]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.


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

Women's Autobiography Copyright © by dixonk is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book