MEXICO AS I SAW IT

One day in July, 1900, I was explaining to my small boys that I was
going off through Canada and America to Mexico to write a new book, to
make some more money for bread and butter and school bills.

One of them appeared distressed at the idea. At last, after a pause, he
said:

“Why don’t you go and sit in that shop in Regent Street with your hair
hanging down, like those three girls do?”

I looked surprised.

“It would not be so tiring as travelling all that long way and writing
another big book,” he explained, “and you would make just as much
money, I am sure.”

Lovely idea!

But I dared not accept his suggestion, kindly meant though it was.

A letter I wrote to a woman friend in 1900 has just come into my hands.
It says:

“Your congratulations on my ‘success,’ as you are pleased to call
it, are very sweet. Public success seems to me to mean so little.
After a good dinner the playgoeer enjoys any foolery—and much the
same with books. A good temper makes a satisfied reader, and an
easy chair and shady lamp do the rest. I am not satisfied. Far from
it. Sheaves of reviews—and all good ones, strange to relate—lie
before me; but they mean nothing. I know inside my little _me_ that
I ought to have done better.

“Perhaps I should have been wise never to have commenced the
struggle. To have retired from London to a suburb or a cottage and
lived quietly on my small income. You will say I have a fit of the
blues—and doubtless I have—or liver, or something equally stupid;
but I’ve been pretty hard at it for four years now—three
books have been conceived and born and a fourth nearly done, and
I am still alive; but I’m tired. Shall I go to Mexico and write
another while I am young enough to rough it and stand the racket,
or shall I throw down the pen and cry vanquished? Work is a tough
job to a woman never brought up to the idea of working, and perhaps
I’m trying to carry more on my silly shoulders than those silly
sloping shoulders can bear. The table is covered with orders of all
sorts and kinds—work lies before me if only I had the pluck to do
it. The more ’success’ I gather, as you call it, the more incapable
I feel.

“Two strings are tugging at me, one says _go on_, the other says
_stop_. The first may end in failure. The second begins in failure.
Mexico—and quite alone—mind you, is a long way, and a big job. To-night
I seem to funk it; but, then, to-night I seem to funk everything, and
even your letter of love and sympathy, dear friend, has not quite
dragged me back to my senses. I’m very lonely at times, and that’s the
truth. After that remark you will think I’m going to marry again; but
there you are wrong. You lost your hundred pounds bet that I would
re-marry in a year—so don’t be foolish and risk any more on this silly,
wayward, lonely, spoilt pen-woman.

“Yours, etc.”

N.B.—I went to Mexico shortly after—alone, quite alone, on a
twenty-five-thousand-mile journey.

Why did I choose Mexico to visit and write about? Because with all the
world before me that land seemed to offer a more historic past than
almost any other country on God’s earth; and was there not a spice of
danger and romance lurking amongst its hills and valleys?

I left London in July, and, after halting in Canada and the United
States, landed in Mexico on November 1st, 1900, and returned to England
in April, 1901. Between those dates I had travelled some twenty-five
thousand miles, had spent thirty-nine nights in moving trains, and many
more in private Pullman-cars in railway sidings. I had lived a life of
luxury and ease and had roughed it to nigh unendurable straits. Besides
which I was constantly sending home articles to the English Press.

It was a several months’ journey from Liverpool to Quebec, through
Canada to Niagara, then to New York, Chicago, Washington, and
Philadelphia; and onward, onward to Mexico. Before leaving America,
however, I turned aside when I found myself only fifty miles from
Galveston, which, about ten weeks previously, had been visited by its
historic and terrible storm. Heart-rending were the sights that met
my eyes and the tales that were poured into my ears. Eight thousand
people had perished in that terrible hurricane, their bodies were
even then being cremated on the shore. Rows of small houses literally
stood on their heads, while on the beach pianos, tramcars, saucepans,
sewing-machines, baths, and perambulators lay in wild confusion.

Resuming my journey I soon passed the Mexican frontier, and there
had my first experience in ranch life; there, too, a “norther,” or
dust-storm, made me long for the comparative comfort of a London fog.
Eyes, nose, mouth, ears, were all choked with hard, sharp, cutting
sandy dust. My raven locks were grey and no longer suitable for
exhibition in the shop in Regent Street. Next came another long railway
journey to Mexico City, with the President of the line in his private
train, with various entertainments on the way, including a bull-fight
and a cock-fight, and much interested amusement at the customs of
the people. Mexico City was reached just in time for me to see the
celebrations of the Feast Day of the Lady of Guadaloupe, the patron
saint of Mexico. It was a wonderful sight, and the story reminded me of
Lourdes, though it is of much earlier origin and the pilgrimage of far
greater magnitude.

The welcome tendered to me in the capital was delightful.

The Christmas customs were, of course, of great interest; Madame Diaz,
the wife of that great President, invited me to her _posada_. A most
enjoyable and novel evening. One of my most valued treasures is the
little bonbonnière she gave me on that occasion.

Many varied experiences followed; rides lasting two or three weeks
through that marvellous country to see old Aztec ruins; life at
tobacco, sugar, tea, or coffee _haciendas_; to say nothing of the
national customs, traditions, and superstitions on every side. The
President gave me a guard of forty _rurales_ (soldiers), and, as
the opportunity of penetrating remote parts was great, twenty-two
gentlemen of all nationalities, from Cabinet Ministers to clerks,
joined us. We were sixty-three all told, and, though I rode astride
like a man, I was the only woman.

Perhaps the most thrilling and exciting moment on my various travels
was that spent on a trolley-car in Southern Mexico. Along those distant
tracks barely two or three trains pass in a day, and hundreds, aye,
thousands, of miles of railway have to be kept in repair. It is usual
for the engineers to run along the line in a little open wagon, known
as a trolley-car, which is worked by hand by four or six men, and
covers the ground at a good pace. It can stop at any moment, and be
lifted bodily off the line should a train require to pass.

Naturally, one sees the scenery magnificently from a car of this
kind, for there is nothing before one. I was sitting in front with an
engineer on each side of me. We had just come through one of the most
magnificent passes in the world of engineering, and had, indeed, at
that moment crossed a bridge, a slender, fragile thing. Some two or
three hundred feet below it the water gurgled in a rushing stream.
Parrots shrieked overhead, terrapins floated on the water, and monkeys
swung from tree to tree. There was a precipice on one side, a high,
rocky hill on the other, and just room for this mountainous line to
crawl round the rocks.

We were all telling stories and chatting cheerfully: the next thing
I knew was that the man on my right seized me by the neck, as if he
suddenly wished to strangle me, and somehow he and I fell together a
tangled mass down the side of the precipice.

When I looked up—luckily caught in the shrubs—an enormous engine was
towering over my head, the grid-like rails of the cow-catcher looking
ominous and weird above me. The splintered platform of the trolley-car
was rushing down the mountain-side, and our iron wheels were running
off in different directions. It was a marvel we were not all killed.

It had happened in this wise.

As we turned a sharp corner an engine suddenly bore down on us—one
of those great black, high American locomotives, neither varnished
nor painted. The engineers, accustomed to the ominous sound, luckily
heard it before it was quite upon us. Hence, I was violently dragged
from what, in another second, would have been instantaneous death. The
natives all jumped off in some wonderful manner, also being accustomed
to the sound; but our trolley-car was smashed to smithereens.

It was a ghastly experience. By the time I regained my equilibrium,
and saw the horrible accident to our frail little carriage and learnt
the awful danger we had just come through, I realised that I had just
experienced one of the most perilous moments of my life.

I should have sat there oblivious and literally courted death. We never
know life’s real dangers till they are past, hence the courage of the
battlefield or shipwreck. We only worry over what we but partially
understand, hence the anxiety so often experienced before sitting in
the dentist’s chair. Anticipation is so much sharper than realisation.

This was not my only narrow escape, for I was blessed with the
proverbial three.




While visiting at the _hacienda_ of the Governor of one of the Southern
States we, one day after lunch, amused ourselves by shooting at bottles
with the rifles of the _rurales_. After a time my hostess and I had
wandered away for a stroll, and, as we returned, a ricochet bullet
slid off a bottle and buried itself in my womanly “Adam’s apple.” A
red streak ran down my collar, I opened my mouth and literally gasped,
choking; everybody thought I was dead. But it proved nothing, and in a
few minutes I could breathe and speak again and was washed clean.

My third escape was a terrible illness, contracted when riding in the
tropics, and caused either by venomous bites or poisonous ivy. Never
shall I forget the awful loneliness of those days and nights fighting
with death in a Mexican hotel.

Of all the marvellous sights, the magnificent scenery, the
many-coloured birds and flowers rivalling each other in gorgeousness,
I need not write here. But, far beyond everything, the scene that left
the deepest impression on my mind was in Southern Mexico. It was a
visit to the Caves of Cacahuimilpa, one of the greatest wonders of the
world, and the Governor of the State organised an expedition for me to
see them. Numberless Indians from far and wide had joined my party,
glad of the opportunity of going inside the wondrous caves which they
hold in such superstitious dread. Candles were distributed to the
company, which by now must have been swelled to something like a couple
of hundred people. All was ready.

The descent was easy, for a roadway had been made; but it was really
very impressive to see so many individuals solemnly marching two and
two into impenetrable blackness to the strain of martial music. Each
person carried a long lighted candle, but before we returned to our
starting-point, six and a half hours later, these candles had nearly
burnt out.

The caves were originally formed by a river, the waterline of which
is distinctly visible, while in places the ground is marked with wave
ripples like the sand of a beach. Then, again, many stones are round
and polished, the result of constant rolling by water; and, still more
wonderful, two rivers flow beneath them, probably through caves just as
marvellous, which no man had then dared penetrate.

I believe we went through seven caverns, and our numerous lights barely
made a flicker in the intense gloom—they were nothing in that vast
space. Rockets were sent up. Rockets which were known to ascend two
hundred and fifty feet, but which nowhere reached the roof; the height
is probably somewhere between five and six hundred feet. Think of a
stone roof at that altitude without any supports.

The size alone appalled, but the stalactites and stalagmites almost
petrified one with amazement. Many of them have joined, making rude
pillars a couple of hundred feet high and perhaps a hundred feet in
diameter at the base. Others have formed grotesque shapes. A seal
upon the ground is positively life-like: a couple of monster Indian
idols: faces and forms innumerable; here an old woman bent nearly
double, there a man with a basket on his head, thrones fit for kings,
organs with every pipe visible, which, when tapped, send forth deep
tones. It was all so great, so wonderful, so marvellous; I felt all
the time as if I were in some strange cathedral, greater, grander, and
more impressive than any I had ever entered. Its aspect of power and
strength paralysed me, not with fear, but with admiration.

At times it was terribly stiff climbing and several of the party had
nasty falls in the uncertain light; at others it was a case of sitting
down and sliding, in order to get from one boulder to another; but it
was worth it all to see such a sight, to realise the Power that made
those caves, to bow before the Almighty Hand which had accomplished
such work, even in millions of years. There hung those great stone
roofs without support of any kind—what architect could have performed
such a miracle? There stood those majestic pillars embedded in rocks
above and below; there hung yards and yards of stalactites weighing
tons, and yet no stay or girder kept them in place. It was a lesson,
a chapter in religion, something solemn and soul-stirring, something
never to be forgotten; one of the Creator’s great mysteries, where
every few yards presented some fresh revelation.

My knees were trembling, every rag of clothing I wore was as wet as
when first taken from the washerwoman’s tub, yet I struggled on,
fascinated, bewildered, awed, by the sights which met me at every step.
Think of it. Stumbling along for four and a half hours, even then not
reaching the end, and, though we returned by the easiest and quickest
way, it was two hours more before we found the exit.

In one of the caves the Governor proposed my health, and the party
gave three cheers, which resounded again and again in that wonderful
subterranean chamber, deep down in the bowels of the earth, with a
mountain above and a couple of rivers below. The military band of
Cacahuimilpa accompanied us, and the effect produced by their music was
stupendous. No words can give any idea of the volume of sound, because
the largest band in the world could not succeed in producing the same
effect of resonance in the open air which ten performers caused in
those vast silent chambers.

It is impossible to describe the immense grandeur of Cacahuimilpa.

Man is speechless in such majestic surroundings; but in this
all-pervading silence surely the voice of God speaks.

Hot, tired, and overpowered we were plodding homewards, when a letter
was handed to a member of the party by a mounted soldier, who, seeing
our lights approaching the entrance, had dared to venture into the
grottos to deliver his missive. We were all surprised at the man’s
arrival, and more surprised to find he carried an envelope. It turned
out to be a telegram which had followed our party from a village
forty miles distant, and had been sent on by special horseman with
instructions to overtake us at all speed. Was ever telegram delivered
amid stranger surroundings, to a more cosmopolitan collection of
humanity assembled in the bowels of the earth, far, far away from
civilisation?

What news that telegram contained! It had travelled seven thousand
miles across land and sea; it had arrived at a moment when we were all
overawed by stupendous grandeur and thoroughly worn out with fatigue.
At the first glance it seemed impossible to read. Men, accustomed to
the vagaries of foreign telegraph clerks when dealing with the English
language, found, however, no difficulty in deciphering its meaning.

Then the Governor spoke a word. Every Indian doffed his hat and bent
his eyes, as Colonel Alarcon walked solemnly towards me, and in deep
tone, with evident feeling, explained that the President of Mexico had
sent on the news to tell the English señora—

“QUEEN VICTORIA IS DEAD.”

A historic telegram, truly, announcing a national calamity, and
received amidst the wildest possible surroundings in the strangest
possible way.

The Queen was dead. The English-speaking people had lost her who had
been their figure-head for sixty-three years. The monarch, to whom the
whole world paid homage as a woman and respect as a Queen, had died at
Osborne on the previous day, while we, wandering over Aztec ruins at
Xochicalco, had not even heard of her illness.

Impressed as we were by the mystic grandeur of the caves, amazed at the
wonders of nature, this solemn news seemed to fit the serious thoughts
of the day, thoughts which had grown in intensity with each succeeding
hour. Cacahuimilpa appeared a fitting spot in which to hear of a great
public loss. Time and place for once were in no wise “out of tune.”

It was dark and the way steep as we rode back to the village in
silence.

Like the proverbial bad penny, I rolled home again with my pocket
full of notes on men, women, and things. I had collected my material,
written bits in railway trains, on steamboats, and almost in the
saddle, and as soon as I felt well enough, put together _Mexico as I
saw It_.

The beginning of the manuscript was sent off to the publishers in
the June following, just two months after landing at home, and the
remainder was printed, chapter by chapter, as I managed to finish each:
a most terrible and anxious manner of proceeding and one certainly not
to be recommended. The first proof of _Mexico as I saw It_ was returned
on July 10th; the slips, or galleys, finished on August 10th; the
whole was paged and passed for press on September 10th. It appeared in
October at a guinea net, the illustrations mostly from my own camera.
So I was just six months in Mexico, and just six more getting out the
book; in my own souvenir copy there is written on the fly-leaf: “It is
done, but it has nearly done for me.”

Reviews were more than kind, but then the subject was new, so people
found it interesting. As Frederic Harrison wrote in the _Positivist
Review_: “The marvellous restoration of Mexico, from being a hot-bed
of anarchy and the victim of superstition to its present condition of
one of the best governed and most enlightened of modern countries, has
often attracted the attention of political observers. In Mrs. Alec
Tweedie’s most interesting volume we find suggestive sketches of the
institution of the Republic, and a personal character of the President,
General Porfirio Diaz, the noble statesman who has achieved such
triumphs.” How could one help being gratified that other influential
organs of public opinion felt with me the “fascinations of the Southern
_haciendas_ and of the natives of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec,” and held
the information, that had been zealously collected, of practical and
informing value?

On the hospitality of the President it is only necessary to say that,
looking back to those records of 1900-1, I find this expression—warm
from the heart—respecting General and Madame Diaz:

“Their kindness and courtesy, the extraordinary thoughtfulness and
consideration with which I was treated, will ever remain in my mind.
Without the personal aid of General Diaz I could not have written
_Mexico as I saw It_, and perhaps this peep into the life of the
people, over whom he rules so powerfully, may help to make that
wonderful country a little better understood.”[5]

* * * * *

Five years later I returned to Mexico and wrote the _Life_ of the
President.

The first time I left the country I was limping with pain after a
serious illness of blood-poisoning—the second time I left almost
limping again, but that was from the weight of the precious documents I
bore away.

No one knew but the President, his wife, and three of his Ministers,
what important material I was taking with me, or that I was going to
write the _Life_ of General Diaz from his diaries and notes. It was
published in England and America in February, 1906, and reprinted with
additions two months later. One kindly critic said: “It is a romance,
a history, a biography, one of the most thrilling stories of real life
ever written.” Later it was translated into German and Spanish. I was
so pressed with work at that time I had one Spanish and two English
secretaries constantly employed—I often sat at my desk for nine or ten
hours a day, and rarely went to any social entertainment except an
occasional public dinner.

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