J. Gladwyn Jebb — His character — Mr. and Mrs. H. R. H. visit him in Mexico — Death of their only son while absent — New York on way to Mexico — Reports — Their loyalty to each other — Mexico City — Don Anselmo — Golden Head of Montezuma — Treasure hunt — Zumpango — Journey to silver mine — Chiapas — Vera Cruz — Frontera — Millions of mosquitoes — A mule load of silver — Attempt of robbers to steal it — Silver mine — Tarantulas — Mishap on journey back — Return to England.
During the year 1889 I made the acquaintance of my late friend J. Gladwyn Jebb, one of the most delightful persons whom I have ever known. Some irony of fate brought it about that Jebb should devote his life to the pursuit of mining and commercial ventures — a career for which he was utterly unsuited. The result may be imagined: he worked very hard in many evil climates, broke down his health, dissipated his large private means in supporting unremunerative enterprises, and died saddened and impoverished.
I have described his character in my introduction to “The Life and Adventures of J. G. Jebb,” by his widow, from which I quote a short passage.
In the city of Mexico, where business men are — business men, he was respected universally, and by the Indians he was adored. “He is a good man, Jebb,” said an honourable old Jewish trader of that city to me — “a man among a thousand, whom I would trust anywhere. See, I will prove it to you, amigo: he has lived in this town doing business for years, yet, with all his opportunities, he leaves it poorer than he came here. Did you ever hear the like of that, amigo?”
Would that there existed more of such noble failures — the ignoble are sufficiently abundant — for then the world might be cleaner than it is. It matters little now: his day is done, and he has journeyed to that wonderful Hereafter of which during life he had so clear a vision, and that was so often the subject of his delightful and suggestive talk. But his record remains, the record of a brave and generous man who, as I firmly believe, never did, never even contemplated, a mean or doubtful act. To those who knew him and have lost sight of him there remain also a bright and chivalrous example and the memory of a most perfect gentleman.
Unfortunately for myself, a connection in the City had introduced me to certain Mexican enterprises in which he was concerned that in due course absorbed no small sum out of my hard earnings. Also he introduced me to Jebb, which good deed I set against the matter of the unlucky investments.
Jebb urged me to come to Mexico and write a novel about Montezuma, both of which things I did in due course; also as a bait he told me a wonderful and, as I believe, perfectly true tale of hidden treasure which we were to proceed to dig up together. Of this treasure I will write hereafter.
Jebb and Mrs. Jebb returned to Mexico during the year 1890, where my wife and I made arrangements to visit them at the commencement of 1891.
And now I come to a very sad and terrible event that pierced me with a sudden thrust which has left my heart bleeding to this day. Yes, still it bleeds, nor will the issue of its blood be stayed till, as he passes by, I touch the healing robes of Death. I refer to the death of my only son.
This child — he was just under ten when he died — possessed a nature of singular sweetness, so sweet that its very existence should have and indeed did warn me of what fate held in store for us. So far as my experience goes, children who bring with them to the earth this twilight glow of the bright day in which perchance they dwelt elsewhere, who wear upon their brows this visible halo of an unnatural charm and goodness, rarely remain to bless it long. That which sent them forth soon calls them back again. And yet, could we but understand, their short lives may not lack fruit. Through their influence on others they may still work on the world they left.
My son Rider — he was by his own wish called Jock, to avoid confusion between us — was such a child as this. I can never remember his doing what he should not, save once when he teased his little sisters by refusing to allow them to come out of a place where he had prisoned them, and for his pains had the only scolding I ever gave him. Yet he was no milksop or “mother’s darling.” He bore pain well, would ride any horse on which he could climb, and even while he was still in frocks I have known him attack with his little fists someone who made pretence to strike me. He was an imaginative child. One example will suffice. We left London on our holiday: it was the year in which I wrote “Allan Quatermain.” When we drove from the station to the farm the full moon shone in the summer sky. “Look, dad,” he said, pointing to it, “there is God’s lamp!”
The boy was beloved by everyone who knew him, and in turn loved all about him, but especially his mother and myself. How much I, to whom all my children are so dear, loved, or rather love, him I cannot tell. He was my darling; for him I would gladly have laid down my life.
It is strange, but when I went to Mexico I knew, almost without doubt, that in this world he and I would never see each other more. Only I thought it was I who was doomed to die. Otherwise it is plain that I should never have started on that journey. With this surety in my heart — it was with me for weeks before we sailed — the parting was bitter indeed. The boy was to stay with friends, the Gosses. I bade him good-bye and tore myself away. I returned after some hours. A chance, I forget what, had prevented the servant, a tall dark woman whose name is lost to me, from starting with him to Delamere Crescent till later than was expected. He was still in my study — about to go. Once more I went through that agony of a separation which I knew to be the last. With a cheerful face I kissed him — I remember how he flung his arms about my neck — in a cheerful voice I blessed him and bade him farewell, promising to write. Then he went through the door and it was finished. I think I wept.
I said nothing of this secret foreknowledge of mine, nor did I attempt to turn from the road that I had chosen because I was aware of what awaited me thereon. Only I made every possible preparation for my death — even to sealing up all important papers in a despatch-box and depositing them in Messrs. Gosling’s Bank, where I knew they would be at once available.
But alas! my spirit saw imperfectly. Or perhaps knowing only that Death stood between us, I jumped to the conclusion that it was on me of an older generation that his hand would fall, on me who was about to undertake a journey which I guessed to be dangerous, including as it did a visit to the ruins of Palenque, whither at the time few travellers ventured. It never occurred to me that he was waiting for my son.
About six weeks later — for I may as well tell the story out and be done with it — that hand fell. My presentiments had returned to me with terrible strength and persistence. One Sunday morning in the Jebbs’ house in Mexico City, as we were preparing to go to church, they were fulfilled. Mrs. Jebb called us to their bedroom. She had a paper in her hand. “Something is wrong with one of your children,” she said brokenly. “Which?” I asked, aware that this meant death, no less, and waited. “Jock,” was the reply, and the dreadful telegram, our first intimation of his illness, was read. It said that he had “passed away peacefully” some few hours before. There were no details or explanations.
Then in truth I descended into hell. Of the suffering of the poor mother I will not speak. They belong to her alone.
I can see the room now. Jebb weeping by the unmade bed, the used basins — all, all. And in the midst of it myself — with a broken heart! Were I a living man when these words are read — why, it would be wrong that I should rend the veil, I who never speak of this matter, who never even let that dear name pass my lips. But they will not be read till I, too, am gone and have learned whatever there is to know. Perhaps also the tale has its lessons. At any rate it is a page in my history that cannot be omitted, though it be torn from the living heart and, some may think, too sad to dwell on.
This morning, not an hour since, I stood by my son’s grave and read what I had carved upon his cross: “I shall go to him.” Now that I am growing old these words are full of comfort and meaning to me. Soon, after all these long years of separation, I shall go to him and put my faith to proof. If it be true, as I believe, then surely my spirit will find his spirit, though it must search from world to world. If, with all earth’s suffering millions, I am deluded, then let the same everlasting darkness be our bed and canopy.
On my return from Mexico I wrote a romance called “Montezuma’s Daughter.” In this tale the teller loses his children, and I put into his mouth what myself I felt. Here are the words: I cannot better them after all these years, and they are as true to me now as they were then.
Ah! we think much of the sorrows of our youth, and should a sweetheart give us the go-by, we fill the world with moans and swear that it holds no comfort for us. But when we bend our heads before the shrouded shape of some lost child, then it is that for the first time we learn how terrible grief can be. Time, they tell us, will bring consolation; but it is false; for such sorrow time has no salves. I say it who am old — as they are so shall they be. There is no hope but faith, there is no comfort save in the truth that love which might have withered on the earth grows fastest in the tomb, to flower gloriously in heaven; that no love indeed can be perfect till God sanctifies and completes it with His seal of death.
I wrote just now that, for reasons I hope to set out later in this book, I believed my faith, which amongst other things promises reunion of the death-divided, to be a true faith. Indeed, if it be otherwise, what a hell is this in which we live. Thrusting from the memory all other trials and sorrows, not for any finite earthly life that could be promised me would I endure again from year to year the agony I have suffered on the one count of this bereavement, which is after all, so common and everyday a thing. If ever, in some dread hour, faith in all its forms should be proved a dream and mockery, surely in the same hour will sound the death-knell of all that is best in the educated world. Brutes which guess of nothing better can live happy till the butcher finds them: men who believe can endure till God consoles or calls them. But will the much-developed man whose heart-strings, like those of the Aeolian harp, must thrill and sob in every wind of pain — will he continue to endure if once he is assured that beneath the precipice from which he will presently be hurled there is — Nothing? Knowing all they must be called upon to suffer at the best, will he breed children, perhaps to see them thrown from the stark cliff before his eyes and there to cease to be for ever? (The case of France, where I believe faith grows very weak, seems to give answer to this question. Yesterday I read that in that country during 1911 the deaths exceeded the births by over thirty thousand. My conviction is that, unless faith returns to her in some form, as a nation France is doomed. She will fall as Rome fell, and from the same cause.)
In short, I hold that God and a belief in a future life where there is no more pain and tears are wiped from off all faces are necessities to civilised and thoughtful man, and that without them, slowly perhaps, but surely, he will cease to be. He will commit suicide when Fortune frowns, as did the Roman who had outgrown his gods; he will refuse to propagate his kind, as do the French. Why should he breed them to be the bread of Death?
Such are the conclusions at which I have arrived after many years of reflection which began at the time of my great grief. They may be right or they may be wrong; that the future history of the white races will reveal. At least I believe in them. Nor do I believe alone. But yesterday I was speaking on these matters to a bishop of the English Church, a very able and enlightened man. I found that my views were his views, and my conclusions his conclusions. Also he thought, as I do, that many of our present troubles, industrial and other, arise from the loss of faith among men. The feast of Life, such as it is, is spread before their eyes. They would help themselves to the meagre and bitter fare they see, and who can wonder? “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.”
To return to the sorrow which gave rise to these reflections. I staggered from the room; I wrote a cable directing that the burial should take place by the chancel door of Ditchingham Church, where now he lies. Afterwards I took up a Bible and opened it at hazard. The words that my eyes fell on were “Suffer little children to come unto me, and forbid them not.” The strange chance seemed to cheer me a little. That afternoon I went for a walk in the great avenue. Never shall I forget that walk among the gay and fashionable Mexicans. I did not know till then what a man can endure and live.
Now I have come to understand that this woe has two sides. If he had lived who knows what might have chanced to him? And the holy love which was between us, might it not have faded after the fashion of this world? As things are it remains an unchangeable, perfect, and eternal thing. Further, notwithstanding all, I am glad that he lived with us for those few years. His sufferings were short; his little life was happy while it endured; he went, I believe, quite sinless from the world; and, lastly, I believe that the soul which has been, is and will be.21
21 My son died suddenly of a perforating ulcer after an attack of measles. Perhaps surgery could have saved him today. — H. R. H.
As for myself, I was crushed; my nerves broke down entirely, and the rest of the Mexican visit, with its rough journeyings, is to me a kind of nightmare. Not for many years did I shake off the effects of the shock; indeed I have never done so altogether. It has left me with a heritage of apprehensions, not for myself personally — I am content to take what comes — but for others. My health gave out. I left London, which I could no longer bear, and hid myself away here in the country. The other day I found a letter of this period, sent to me as an enclosure on some matter, in which the writer speaks of me as being “quite unapproachable since the death of his only son.” So, indeed, I think I was. Moreover, at this time the influenza attacked me again and again, and left me very weak.
We did not come home at once — what was the good of returning to the desolated home? Our boy had died in a strange house and been brought to Ditchingham for burial. What was the good of returning home? So there, far away, in due course letters reached us with these dreadful details and heart-piercing messages of farewell.
And now I have done with this terrible episode and will get me to my tale again. The wound has been seared by time — few, perhaps none, would guess that it existed; but it will never heal. I think I may say that from then till now no day has passed, and often no hour, when the thought of my lost boy has not been present with me. I can only bow the head and murmur, “God’s will be done!”
I remember reading in one of R. L. Stevenson’s published letters, written after he had helped to nurse a sick child, that nothing would induce him to become a father, for fear, I gathered, lest one day he might be called upon to nurse his own sick child. I can well understand the effect of the experience on a highly sensitive nature, and, as a matter of fact, he died childless. Yet, as I read, I wondered what he would have felt had such a lightning shaft as fell upon my head from heaven smitten and shattered him.
Perhaps, being frail, he would have died. But I was tougher, and lived on. More: I went among murderers and escaped; I wandered into the fever lands, and never took it; the brute I rode fell in a flooded river, and I did not drown; I was in peril on the sea, and came safe to shore. It was decreed that I should live on.
On our arrival in New York on our way to Mexico, on January 10, 1891, I was seized upon by numbers of reporters. Now the single reporter may be dealt with, preferably by making him talk about himself, which is a subject far more interesting to him than you are; or he may be persuaded to tell you about the last person or subject upon which he has had to report. Thus, on a subsequent occasion, a reporter came on board the ship to see me before she reached her berth. Early as it was in the morning, he had already been about his paper’s business, attending the electrocution of two men in a prison! The sight had impressed even his hardy nerves sufficiently to make him talk a great deal about it, describing all its details. Therefore I was called upon to furnish him with but little information about myself, though probably this was not a fact that weighed on him when it came to the writing of the interview.
Another man, who caught me in a railway train, grew so interested in talking of his own affairs that he never noticed that the train had started till it was running at quite twenty miles an hour. Then with a yell he rushed down the carriage and leapt out into the night. I have always wondered whether he was killed or only broke his leg.
There is nothing that an American reporter will not do to attain his ends. For instance, I have known them to break into my room at midnight when I was in bed.
Once, when I was in America as a Commissioner, the reporter of a great paper did his best to make me express opinions on some important matter connected with the internal policy of the United States. Naturally I declined, but this did not prevent my alleged views upon the question from appearing everywhere. Then followed leading articles in some of the best papers gravely lecturing me and pointing out how improper it was that one who had been received with so much courtesy, and who occupied a diplomatic position, should publicly intervene in the domestic affairs of the country to which he had been sent by his Government. A famous comic journal, also, published a cartoon of me in a pulpit engaged in lecturing the American people.
Needless to say, I was extremely annoyed, but of redress I could obtain none. Contradiction where the country is so vast and newspapers are so many is hopeless. However, when I was leaving New York another representative of the same great paper came to interview me on the steamer, and to him I expressed my feelings. He listened; then replied, with a somewhat sickly smile, “Very annoying, Mr. Haggard, but I guess it would be scarcely loyal of me to give our man away, would it?”
Nothing could exceed the kindness with which we were received in the United States — even the reporters were kind till it came to cold print. Really I think that Americans are the most hospitable people in the world. I will go further and say that nobody is so nice or sympathetic or broad-minded or desirous of all good as a really first-class American, man or woman. I remember that on the occasion of this visit we were quite glad to escape from New York, where literally we were being killed with kindness. To feast with some hospitable host at every meal, from breakfast till a midnight supper, after a week or so becomes more than the human frame can bear.
From New York we went to the beautiful city of New Orleans, where also we were widely entertained. One dinner-party I shall never forget. Upon each napkin lay a little poem anent something I had written. For instance, here is one which evidently refers to “The World’s Desire”:
Upon thy breast the “bleeding Star” of love,
Etherealised, and freed from serpent taint,
Is all afire, O burnished dove!
For whom men fail and faint!
Moreover in the middle of dinner someone — I think it was our hostess — rose and read a poem at me. Though very kindly meant, it was really most embarrassing, especially as I had no poem ready with which to reply.
In New Orleans, amongst other places of much interest, I was shown a park in which duels used to be fought in the early days, and a graveyard where, because of the water in the soil, the dead are buried in niches in the surrounding walls.
Leaving that most hospitable city, we travelled on to El Paso, then quite a small town on the Mexican border. I remember that on the train I fell into conversation with a gentleman who, much to my astonishment, informed me that in the future we should telegraph through the air without the use of any connecting wires, and furnished me with the details of how this would be done. At the time I confess it occurred to me that he was amusing himself by gammoning a stranger who was known to write romances. Now, however, I see that at the commencement of the year 1891 there was at any rate one person who was very well acquainted with the system of wireless telegraphy which is now identified with the name of Mr. Marconi, then a lad of sixteen years of age.
There were at this time two railway lines running from the States to Mexico City, and I recollect that we hesitated long by which of them we should travel. Our choice was fortunate, since the train which left on the same day by the other line met with many adventures. Amongst other things it was twice thrown off the rails by intelligent Mexicans actuated either by spite or the hope of plunder, and some of its occupants were killed. Mexico, even in those days, was a wonderful city of almost Parisian appearance; but I confess that what interested me more than its tramways and fine modern buildings were such relics of old Mexico as could be seen in the museum and elsewhere, and the mighty volcano of Popocatepetl, which the Aztecs feared and worshipped, towering to the skies. The cathedral also, built by the early Spanish conquerors, is a remarkable church, though, owing to the rarity of the air at that height above sea-level, I should not recommend any visitor who has doubts as to the condition of his heart to follow our example and climb to the top of its tower.
I think I mentioned that the original cause of my visit to Mexico was the tale of a certain treasure which appealed to all my romantic instincts. This was the story so far as I can recollect it.
In Mexico Mr. Jebb knew a certain Cuban named Don Anselmo. This man, who was a geologist, was prying about on the farther shore of Lake Tezcuco, when a Mexican emerged from some bushes and remarked that he saw that Anselmo knew the secret which he thought belonged to himself alone. Anselmo, being no fool, pumped him, and out came the story. It appears than an aged cacique confided to the Mexican the plans and inventory of that portion of the treasure of the Aztecs which was recaptured from the Spaniards in the disaster of the Noche triste. This inventory set out a list of eighteen large jars of gold, either in the form of ornaments or dust, several jars full of precious stones, much arms and armour, also of gold, and lastly a great golden head more than life-size, being a portrait of the Emperor Montezuma. The plan showed where and how all this wealth had been disposed of in a pit sixty feet deep, at the bottom of which was a great rock covered with Aztec writing. The mouth of this pit was on the land where Anselmo was pursuing his geological researches, and marked by two ancient trees planted near to it by the Aztecs when they buried the treasure.
The only stipulation made by the old cacique when he revealed the secret, which came straight down to him from his forefather who had helped Guatemoc to bury the treasure, was that it should never be given up to Government or to any Spaniard.
Needless to say, the Mexican and Don Anselmo entered into a partnership. Anselmo tried to raise funds to buy the property. Failing in this, he got the leave of the proprietor to prospect for sulphur, and, with some others, began to dig at the spot indicated on the plan. All went well. The Mexican kept away native loungers by announcing that devils dwelt in the hole. The pit was cleared out, and at the depth of sixty feet was found the great stone, on which was cut an owl, the crest or totem mark of Guatemoc. Unfortunately, just at this time the excavators were advised that the property had been sold to a new owner, who was coming to inspect it. All night long they worked furiously at the stone, which at last they destroyed with dynamite. A tunnel was revealed beyond, running at right angles into the side of the hill, till some steps were reached that mounted upwards. On one of these steps lay the copper head of a spear. At the top of them, however, was a very solid wall of some hard material which had been fused by heat.
The excavators retreated, baffled by the lack of time and this impenetrable wall. They filled in the shaft, hurling down it the boles of the two trees that Guatemoc had planted, and ran before the new owner arrived, announcing that they had found no sulphur.
Ultimately Anselmo approached Mr. Jebb, who was known to have influence with the member, or ex-member, of the Government who had acquired the property. From him Jebb obtained permission to dig for antiquities on his estate. I remember the arrival of the formal letter of leave, but not what stipulations were made as to the disposal of any articles that might be found. Full of hope that it would fall to our lot to discover the golden head of Montezuma and the jars of treasure and of jewels, with the help of Senor Anselmo we were making our preparations once more to clear that shaft when the terrible news of which I have spoken arrived. After its receipt I had no heart to enter upon the adventure.
A year or so later Jebb returned to Mexico to find, I think, that the Mexican concerned was dead and that Anselmo had vanished, none knew where. It was suggested that he had been murdered by Indians who knew that he held the secret of their ancient wealth. But whether this was so or not I cannot say.
The site of the shaft is, I suppose, now lost, although of course some of the peons that assisted in the clearing of the pit may remember its whereabouts, if they still live. I understand, however, that only Anselmo and the Mexican actually destroyed the covering stone engraved with an owl and explored the passage and flight of steps beyond. The peons probably thought that they were really digging for sulphur without the permission of the proprietor of the land.
The story as it stands is, I admit, like most such stories, rather vague, but for my part I believe, as did the late Mr. Jebb, that Montezuma’s treasure or a large part of it remains buried in this place. That it is buried somewhere is not to be doubted, for the Spaniards never recovered what was lost in the rout of the Noche triste. Indeed, my impression is, although I cannot verify this without rereading all the old chroniclers, that they put many Indians to the torture, including Guatemoc himself, as I have described in “Montezuma’s Daughter,” in order to force them to reveal its hiding-place. However this may be, I doubt whether the golden head of Montezuma and the jewels which he wore will ever again see the light of day. The Aztecs buried them deeply, having time at their disposal; no plough or surface excavation will reveal them, and the place of their sepulture is lost. And this must anyhow be pleasing to the shade of the heroic Guatemoc.
By a little stretch of the imagination one might almost fancy that this hoard still lies under the protection of the evil Aztec gods, of one of which I will now tell the story.
Shortly before I went to Mexico, in the course of some drainage works which were then being begun at a distance from the city — I think the place was called Zumpango, but of this I am not sure — a peculiarly hideous idol was discovered. It was grey in colour, but, if I remember rightly, more or less blotched with pink, and its head was sunk almost between the shoulders, while I can only describe the face as devilish. On its disinterment it is a fact that the Indians of the neighbourhood identified it at once, by the tradition which had descended from father to son among them, as a slaughter-idol of the Aztecs which had been buried at this spot to save it from destruction by the Spaniards in the time of Cortes, and there remained in seclusion until the year 1890. Its resurrection is said to have occasioned great excitement among them.
One of the old chroniclers — I think it is Bernal Diaz — describes the finding of the Place of Sacrifice over which this idol presided. If I recollect aright he says that they saw a pole from the top of which the idol itself had been removed, and that the said pole was built all round with the skulls of human victims whose hearts had been torn out as an offering to it. In short, the pedigree of the thing seems to be well authenticated. As Mrs. Jebb describes in the Life of her husband, Jebb, an ardent collector of curiosities, was very anxious to obtain this blood-stained relic, which he offered to buy at no mean price. The finder, however, could not be tempted to part with it, and there the matter remained. One day, however, to Jebb’s great astonishment, the idol arrived on the back of a native, unaccompanied by any note or word of explanation, and was deposited in his flat in the city of Mexico, where he found it on his return home. When I visited him very shortly afterwards one of the first things that I saw in the house was this ill-omened effigy of Huitzilpotchli, or whatever god it represented, grinning a welcome across the patio. Now by some strange chance from that moment forward, as Mrs. Jebb tells, everything went wrong with her husband’s affairs. His health broke, companies with which he was connected collapsed, mines proved unpayable, and, lastly, he sold a reversionary interest in a considerable sum for a third of its value on the very day before the life-tenant died! Such were some, but by no means all, of the catastrophes that overwhelmed him, which cause one to wonder for what exact reason the finder had parted gratis with this peculiar treasure for which shortly before he had refused good gold.
One of the places in which we stayed in Mexico was a huge hacienda situated by a lake. This vast house had once been a monastery, and the great chamber in which we slept was still hung round with the portraits of ill-favoured abbots. A feature of the house consisted of its almost endless cemented roofs, on which we used to walk. It was tenanted by the two bachelor stewards of the great estate, who kept mastiff dogs to guard them at night, friendly creatures enough when once mutual confidence had been established. Altogether that hacienda was not a cheerful residence to my mind, although the wild-fowl shooting on the lake was excellent and the farming operations that were carried on interested me much.
Shortly after the receipt of the desolating news of which I have written, in order to try to occupy our minds we made an expedition to a place called Pinal among the mountains, where, with Mr. Jebb, we were the guests of a gentleman named Stockdale who had charge of a silver mine in which Jebb was interested. It was a spot of extraordinary loveliness, with its deep valleys and pine-clad heights, but the journey there on horseback was very rough. Sometimes the road ran along the dry bed of a river, where the animals stumbled from stone to stone, while at others it wended on the edge of precipices. Down one of these precipices I nearly disappeared, for my horse, a wooden brute, took the opportunity to fall at a spot where the two-foot-wide path had been washed away by rain, in such a fashion that his front legs were on one side of the gap and his hind part on the other. How I escaped I am sure I do not know. Mr. Stockdale used to gallop along these paths, although once he and his horse fell over the edge and were saved only by being caught in the flat top of a thick thorn tree. He laughed at my dislike of them. A while afterwards I heard that he had fallen from such a path and been dashed to pieces. He was a young Englishman of the best sort, one of that gallant breed whose bones whiten every quarter of the earth.
The traveller on these mountain paths in Mexico will notice many wooden crosses set up against the rocky walls. Each of these shows that here a death has occurred, sometimes by accident, more frequently by murder, which amongst these half-savage and half-bred people — the product, many of them, of intercourse between the Spaniard and the Indian — is or used to be of common occurrence. (Now I observe that under the name of Revolution the Mexicans are butchering each other wholesale in the hope of securing the plunder of the State, which has grown wealthy under the rule of the fugitive Diaz.)
I remember that we reached Pinal on a Saturday, the night on which the peons get drunk on mescal and aqua ardiente and fight over gambling and women. On the Sunday morning I walked down the street of the village, where I saw two men lying dead with blankets thrown over them. A third, literally hacked to pieces by machetes, was seated in a collapsed condition in a doorway, while the village barber tried to sew up his hideous wounds. I do not know what became of him. Such was the Mexico of those days.
One of the towns that we visited on this journey was a place named Queretaro, with a plaza where the band played, for all the Mexicans are musical, and the young people walked about in the evening. I felt so ill there that I thought I must be going to die; but a travelling American doctor whom I met in the place, and who, good fellow that he was, kindly examined me, told me that I was suffering from nothing except shock to the nerves.
At Queretaro I was taken up a hill and shown the wall against which the unhappy Emperor Maximilian had been butchered some five-and-twenty years before. In this town, as in most others in Mexico, the church bells seemed to ring continually, as I was informed, to frighten away the devils, of whom there must in truth be many in that land — if devils exist anywhere outside the human heart.
We made some part of the return journey from Pinal in a kind of diligence that we hired. It was reported that brigands were active in the country through which we had to pass, and therefore we were not best pleased when a fat Mexican, who was convoying a huge mass of pure silver from some mine, insisted upon joining our party. When asked why he was so determined upon the point, he answered: “Oh! I have silver; in front hide brigands. You are Englishmen, and the English will always fight!” However, we saw nothing of these brigands, perhaps because of the warlike reputation of our race.
On our return to Mexico City I undertook a longer journey to the State of Chiapas, then rarely visited by Europeans, where Jebb was interested in a certain mine, in which, to my sorrow, I had shares. The original arrangement was that we were to have travelled to the marvellous ruins of Palenque, which were built by some preAztec race. But this was given up for the same reason that we gave up digging for Montezuma’s treasure. In place of it it was settled that Jebb and I should make the journey to the Chiapas mine and, returning thence at a certain date, meet our wives on the New York steamer off the port of Frontera, where she called, and thence proceed with them to the States and England. Of course it miscarried, as most things do, or did, in Mexico, as I shall tell presently. Indeed, as I can see now, the whole expedition was of a somewhat crack-brained order, but at the time I cared little what I did.
Jebb and I proceeded from Mexico to Vera Cruz by the wonderful railway which winds from the 7000 feet high tableland, past the glorious mountain of Orizaba to the coast. Then the train only ran in the day-time in charge of an armed guard, for fear of brigands who could be relied upon to throw it off the line at night. I recall one town or village which we passed where there were, I think, thirteen churches and twelve houses, or so I was told. The churches were said to have all been built by successful brigand captains when they retired from business in the neighbourhood in order to expiate their not inconsiderable crimes. By the way, I think it was on my journey to Pinal that I passed through a place of some size where we saw only a few sullen old men and some women and children. The rest of the male population had recently been killed out by the rurales, or mounted guards, I forget for what cause. Indeed all my recollections of Mexico are somewhat fragmentary, for at the time I made no notes of my experiences, and after a lapse of over twenty years the memory is apt to retain only such occurrences and scenes as struck it with peculiar force.
At Vera Cruz, a beautiful but, at that time, unwholesome town, for yellow fever was still prevalent there and the vultures were the chief safeguards of the public health (they sat on the scavengers’ carts as these went their rounds), we caught the steamer which was to land us at Frontera. I had left Mexico City with the worst cold I ever experienced, contracted originally through my folly in opening the window of a stifling Pullman car, not knowing that we were to run over high mountains in the night. It was so bad that I had to pull my eyelids open in the morning, and even my ears were stopped up; nor could I shake it off in the piercing atmosphere of the central Mexican tableland. The mild and beautiful climate of the coast, however, acted on me like magic, and before I had been twenty hours at sea I was almost well again.
On the day after leaving Vera Cruz we reached Frontera, at the mouth of a great stream that I think was named the Tobasco River. Frontera was a village with a long wide street of which the population appeared to me to show many traces of white blood. It was a horrible hole. The inn, if it could be so called, in which we slept, if I remember right, stood partly on piles in the water like a lake dwelling; in the garden or yard great hogs rummaged, while vultures sat upon the railing of the verandah. Mosquitoes buzzed about by millions, and the face of the boy who waited on us was covered with open sores, resulting, I was told, from fever. Many of the children, also, were fever-stricken, since here malaria seemed to have a favourite home. Only the great river, with its palm-clad banks, was beautiful.
On the following day we started up this river, lying in a canoe towed by a naphtha launch, in which canoe we slept, or tried to sleep, all night. Never in all my life — no, not even at Tiberias on the Sea of Galilee — did I meet with so many or such ferocious mosquitoes! I tied my trousers and my sleeves round my ankles and wrists with string, but they bit through the cloth, and when I looked in the morning where the dogskin gloves ended on the wrists were great bracelets of white bumps. Then there were little grey flies called gehenn, or some such name, which were worse than the mosquitoes, since the effect of their bites lasted for days, and, when one went ashore, garrapatas or tiny ticks that buried themselves in the flesh and, if removed, left their heads behind them. Perhaps these were the greatest torments of the three. Altogether the banks of the Tobasco River cannot be recommended as a place of residence.
In due course we arrived at a town called St. Juan Bautista, where we stopped for a night or two with some Mexicans who had an interest in the mine we were to visit. They were kind in their way, but what I chiefly recollect about the place are the remains of an ox that had been slaughtered within a yard or two of the verandah, just beyond a beautiful Hibiscus bush in flower, and some soup composed apparently of oil in which livid cockscombs bobbed up and down. Thence we proceeded up the river in the naphtha launch, of which the machinery continually broke down. This was the pleasantest part of the journey.
At length, leaving the launch, we came to a village of which the name escapes me, a straggling place whereof the central street was paved with rough cobbles. Here we slept in a house belonging to some lady who was a great personage in the village, and beautifully situated upon a cliff at the foot of which ran a sparkling river that reminded me of a salmon stream in Scotland. Here also Jebb and I very narrowly escaped being murdered. It came about thus:
We had in our charge a mule-load of silver of the value of three thousand dollars, which we were conveying to a mine whither went more bullion than ever came out of it. The knowledge of our possession of this treasure came to the ears of the inhabitants of this place, among whom were a goodly proportion of brigands and cut-throats and, as we discovered afterwards, some of these made a plot to kill us and steal the silver. It happened that Jebb and I were alone in the house of which I have spoken, save, I think, for the widow lady and one or two Indian servants who slept in a different part of the big place. Our rooms (mine was half filled with Indian corn) were at either end of a large eating-chamber which overlooked the valley. They were fitted with latchless or broken French windows. The plan of attack was, as someone confessed afterwards, to climb up a sloping wall built of loose stones, kill us with machetes, find where the silver might be (as a matter of fact it was under Jebb’s bed) and retire with the spoil. As police were lacking and our own folk were camped at a distance, in the Mexico of those days this scheme seemed easy of accomplishment, since two men surprised at night could not have done much against a band of armed assassins.
About midnight an attempt was made to put it into operation. The robbers arrived and began to climb the wall; afterwards we saw their footprints on the mosses and the displaced stones. For some reason, however, Jebb was suspicious and, when he was disturbed by the furious barking of the dogs belonging to the house, he rose and went to the boltless window, whence he overheard the thieves whispering together at the bottom of the wall. I also was awakened by the barking of the dogs, but, after making sure that my pistol was at hand under my pillow, went to sleep again. For the rest of the story I will quote what I wrote in my introduction to Mrs. Jebb’s Life of her husband:
Retreating to the bed he [i.e. Jebb] seated himself on the edge of it, holding a wax match in one hand and his long-barrelled Colt cocked in the other. This was his plan: to wait till he heard the thieves push open the French windows, then to strike the match (for the night was pitch dark), and by its light to fire at them over it before they could attack him.
For a long while he sat thus, and twice he heard the loose stones dropping as his assailants began to climb up the wall beneath the window; but on each occasion they were frightened by the clamour of the dogs, which at length grew so loud that, thinking our Indian servants, who slept at a distance from the house, would be aroused, the thieves took to flight without the dollars, leaving nothing but some footprints behind them.
“And why did you not come and wake me?” I asked when he had finished his tale.
“Oh!” he answered, “I nearly did so, but I knew that you were very tired; also there was no use in both of us handing in our checks; for there were a dozen of those devils, and, had they got into the room, they would have made a clean sweep of us.”
I did not make any reply; but I remember thinking, and I still think, that this conduct showed great courage and great unselfishness on the part of Mr. Jebb. Most people would have retreated at the first alarm; but this, with the utter fearlessness which was one of his characteristics, he did not do, since the dollars in his charge were too heavy to carry, and, before men could be found to assist him, they would have been secured by the robbers, who knew well where to look for them. In the rare event, however, of the supply of personal pluck proving equal to such an occasion, how many of us, for the reasons given, having a well-armed white companion at hand, would have neglected to summon him to take his part in the fray? A man must be very brave and very unselfish indeed to choose to face a band of Mexican cut-throats when a word would bring a comrade to his side.
I may add that his conduct was foolish as well as unselfish, since in such a business two can fire quicker than one. Also the sound of his first shot would of course have wakened me with the result that I should have rushed, bewildered and unprepared, into the fray and probably have been cut down before I understood the situation.
However, as it happened, we escaped, thanks to that noble animal, the dog. So did the cold-blooded villains who had planned our murder in order to enrich themselves.
What a land of bloodshed Mexico has been, is still, in this year of revolution, and some prophetic spirit tempts me to add, shall be! The curse of the bloody Aztec gods seems to rest upon its head. There, from generation to generation, blood calls for blood. And yet, if only it were inhabited by some righteous race, what a land it might be with its richness and its beauty! For my part, I believe that it would be well for it if it should pass into the power of the United States.
From this place of a forgotten name we proceeded to the mine on mules. It was a fearful journey, but how long it took to accomplish I cannot remember. For the first part of it the road, if it could be called a road, consisted of a kind of corduroy of little ridges with mud-holes of from one to three feet deep between them, which had been gradually hollowed out by the feet of mules, the ridges being those portions of the ground on which these did not tread. As heavy rains had fallen and, indeed, were still falling, the pleasures of such a ride may well be imagined. Once we stopped at a hacienda where there was a cocoa plantation that I was told produced a great deal of money in that fertile soil. I shall never forget the place, or at least the impression it produced upon me. In a long low room a fat half-breed, its owner, was swinging in a hammock, or rather being swung by Indian girls. Terrible stories were told of such men and their poor Indian slaves in these remote places, for in practice slaves they still remained, especially with reference to young women who grew up upon their estates. Whether things have bettered since that day I do not know, but, if certain works that I have read are true, I gather that in such matters they remain much the same as they were two hundred years ago.
After the corduroy road plains we passed into the mountains where, by the hollowing action of water, the tracks had been reduced to a kind of ditch floored with a butter of red clay. Here there were precipices, along the edges of which we ambled. One spot remains firmly fixed upon my mind. The path along the precipice had been broken away and a new one made a little further up the hillside. When we reached the place I tried to turn my mule to this upper path. But the wooden-mouthed brute was of a different opinion. Baggage mules, I should explain, always prefer the edge of a precipice, because their burdens are less likely to be knocked by projecting rocks or other mules. Therefore, this beast that I rode insisted upon taking the lower path. The natural result followed: we began to descend the red butter slide with great rapidity. There was neither time nor room to dismount. All appeared to be over, since a few yards in front, the path having, as I said, been washed away, was empty space. However, just in time, the mule itself awoke to the situation. I presume that its inherited experience told it that to be dashed to pieces is not agreeable. At any rate it put on some kind of vacuum brake of its own, with the result that we pulled up at the extremest edge of nothingness; indeed, it seemed to me that when our slide came to its end all the creature’s four feet were gathered in a round that might have been covered by a Mexican priest’s hat. Afterwards that same mule, the most incompetent surely of all its kind, fell with me in the midst of a flooded river.
Another such river we were obliged to cross seated in a loop of string which was slung upon a rope, quite an exciting mode of progression. Upon the occasion of Mr. Jebb’s previous visit to this mine either the loop or the rope broke, and the cook who was making the journey went to a watery grave.
We slept a night in a saw-mill that had been established by the mining company upon the banks of a great river. I remember that at dawn I went to bathe in this river, and was struck with the marvellous beauty of the scene. The face of the water was covered with clouds of floating mist, while above, rising in tiers from the steep banks of the river, appeared the motionless, solemn trees. And then the indescribable silence and the utter loneliness. The great primeval forest beyond this river was very wonderful, at any rate to me who had never seen its like. Here grew vast trees with rib-like roots that ran far up the trunk, and between the trees impenetrable thickets of Indian Shot — Canna, I think, is the right name — twenty feet and more in height. When the Indians wish to grow a crop of maize they burn a patch of this Canna scrub and sow the seed in the rich ash-fertilised soil, where it bears abundantly.
These Indians of remoter Mexico are strange, sad creatures whose demeanour suggests that the woes and wickedness heaped upon their forefathers by the cruel Spaniards have never faded from the minds of the descendants. In body they are handsome and often stately, but their souls seem crushed. Now they, whose race once was free and great, as the mighty ruins show, are but hewers of wood and drawers of water whom the white man kills if they venture to cross his desire. On the narrow mountain paths or in the depths of the vast forests the traveller meets them toiling forward under the weight of some tremendous load. Humbly the poor creatures, in whose veins perhaps flows the blood of Montezuma, draw aside and stand resting on their long sticks while the white lords pass. Then once more they begin their patient journeyings.
By the way, I saw a very curious “mackintosh” in use among these Chiapas Indians. It consisted of two huge leaves, I suppose of some water plant, which were fastened together at the base, leaving a hole for the wearer’s head. These leaves, thus arranged, hung to below the middle before and behind, and were impermeable even to the tropical Mexican rain. A long line of men clad in them presented the strangest of sights.
We arrived at the mine at last, and spent some days there. It was in the charge of an English gentleman whose name I am sorry to say I have quite forgotten, but who received us with much kindness. He had built himself, or the company had built for him, a long low house with a verandah and some spare rooms, in one of which I slept. After the mosquito-haunted canoe and our nocturnal habitations, that clean little room seemed an almost celestial abode. Tarantulas were very plentiful about the house and, going to bed one night, I perceived a specimen of inconceivable size — really it looked as large as a plate — sitting on the ceiling immediately above my head, and shouted for assistance. My host arrived and, after inspection of the monster, exclaimed: “For goodness’ sake don’t touch it! That isn’t a tarantula, that’s the chap who lives upon tarantulas!” I accepted the explanation, but asked him to be good enough to remove this household god to his own room.
While Jebb was engaged in the affairs of the mine I wandered about the beautiful valley in which it was situated, collecting plants and ferns. The vegetation here was truly wonderful, while palms and other trees, covered with ferns and orchids to their crowns, presented a lovely sight. Only, because of the snakes which were said to abound, it was necessary to be very careful in gathering these floral treasures. With much difficulty I succeeded in bringing a sackload of roots to England, and in the greenhouses here still survive some of the plants I collected in Mexico, though certain of the ferns grew so enormous that they had to be given away. I lost that sack on an American train, and was told by the conductor to go and look for it in a very insufficiently lighted van, where presently I came to grief over some hard object. It proved to be a coffined corpse which was being “mailed” from one part of the States to another.
Our return journey to Frontera was quite as arduous as that of which I have spoken, but in the end we arrived without having contracted fever or met with any serious mishap. Here, however, we fell victims to Mexican guile. The American steamer, with our wives and luggage on board, was due to call on the following day, but some rascal at Frontera who was agent for the line, and also owned a tub that plied between that port and Vera Cruz, informed us that this she would not do because of a “norther” that was coming up. Now a “norther” is a very terrible gale which blows for days at a time in the Gulf of Mexico, making it impossible for even the finest ship to approach certain of the ports, and the agent swore that his telegraphic information as to its arrival was correct. This, of course, meant that we might look forward to, I think, another fortnight of the pleasures of Frontera.
However, the agent was ready with a remedy. The tub I have mentioned was sailing for Vera Cruz at once. It would, he said, get there before the liner left, or, if not, it would signal to the liner to stop and take us aboard. Only we must make up our minds instantly — within five minutes. We fell into the trap, paid an expensive fare, and steamed off in that dreadful ship. During the night we sighted the American liner with our wives on board, making straight for Frontera! To communicate with her was impossible; indeed, once he had us safe at sea the captain laughed at the idea. On the following morning the ladies arrived at Frontera, where they expected to meet us, but were told by the consummate villain of an agent who had shipped us off in his own boat on the previous day, that no Englishmen answering to our description had been even heard of at Frontera. So they were forced to proceed upon their journey in a state of some anxiety.
We also had anxieties, for the machinery of our tub broke down. There for one whole night we rolled about off the coast of Mexico, sleeping, or rather sitting, on the coils of rope upon the deck and waiting for the promised “norther” which now showed every sign of arrival. Fortunately, however, it did not develop until later, for, had it done so, our ship in its disabled condition would in all probability have gone to the bottom. By the following morning the engines were more or less patched up, and we crept into Vera Cruz with no baggage except the travel-stained garments in which we stood and the sack of fern roots whereof I have spoken, for such spare clothes as we possessed had been left behind.
The end of it was that we journeyed back to the City of Mexico, a place that I had hoped never to see again, where we bought a few necessaries and took the train to New York.
After five days of arduous travel, during which I suffered much from headache, we reached that city to find that our womenkind had also arrived there safely. Two or three things remain impressed upon my mind in connection with this long train journey. One is the sad and desolate aspect of the sandy wildernesses of Upper Mexico, dotted here and there with tall cacti, as these appeared in the light of the full moon. Another is the sight of a small herd of bison which we passed on the great plains of Texas, I suppose among the last that were left in that country. These I am very glad to have seen in their wild state. The third is the view of Niagara as we saw it in one wintry dawn. The train pulled up to allow us to inspect the Falls, and for a while we stood almost on the brink of the cataract watching the great ice boulders thunder to the depths below. It was a mighty and majestic scene, which the loneliness of the hour did much to enhance.
From New York we took ship for Liverpool, where we arrived without accident in due course. I was not well at the time, having again been attacked by influenza on the voyage. Needless to say, our homecoming was very sad. After, I think, only one night in London we came to Ditchingham, where I found my two little girls dressed in black and — a grave.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55