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HOME > Classical Novels > The Boy Travellers in Mexico > CHAPTER XXVI.
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The walk of our young friends took them to the Alameda, which proved unusually attractive, as it was filled with tropical plants and trees to which their eyes had not been accustomed in the upland region. They welcomed the palm-trees as old friends; the palm does not flourish in Mexico at a greater elevation than 1500 feet above the level of the sea excepting under peculiarly favorable circumstances. The palms of Vera Cruz are finely developed, but they do not attain the size of those at Medellin, twelve miles down the coast. Medellin is a summer resort of the Veracruzanos; they go there for recreation during the hot season, or at least such of them as cannot afford the longer journey to Orizaba and the mountain regions.
Many of the trees and bushes in the Alameda were bright with flowers. As if there were not enough floral products growing in sight, several flower-sellers came around with their wares, which they persistently offered to the visitors. Frank asked for the palo de leche, but the flower-sellers
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 did not have it, though one enterprising dealer endeavored to substitute a common blossom in its place, with the gravest assurance that it was the article sought.
"I haven't heard of that flower before," said Fred. "Why were you asking for it?"
"I read about it last night," was the reply, "and had a curiosity to see what it was like."
"Well, what did you read that was interesting?"
"The description said that the term palo de leche means simply 'milky plant,' and is applied to several plants from whose stems a milky substance exudes. We have the same kind of plant in the North, such as the milk-weed and its kindred. There are many varieties of the palo de leche in Mexico, and they belong to the family of Euphorbia.
"One kind is used by the Indians for fishing; they throw the leaves into the water and the fishes are stupefied and rise to the surface, where they are easily taken before the effect of the narcotic has passed away. The same writer says that if the milk is thrown upon a fire it gives out fumes which produce nausea and severe headaches that often last for several hours. Taken internally, the milk of some of the Euphorbia is a deadly poison; it will produce death or insanity, according to the size and preparation of the dose or the condition of the person to whom it is administered. There is a popular belief among the Mexicans that the insanity of the ex-Empress Carlotta was caused by this poison. While many deny this and point to the fact that she became insane after going to Europe, they admit that the palo de leche is to be feared when in the hands of unscrupulous persons. On the other hand, it is claimed that the Indians can so prepare and use the poison as to regulate the time at which it will cause death or insanity."
"If that is the case," replied Fred, "it is no wonder that the flower-sellers do not deal in what you wanted. Perhaps it would not be altogether safe for a Mexican to ask for it, as he might be suspected of evil designs and bring the police nearer than would be comfortable."
The subject of palo de leche was dropped and the walk continued.
At a fountain they saw quite a group of men and quadrupeds, and a glance showed that the same system of water supply prevails here as in most other cities of Mexico. Water is carried by the aguadores either on their own backs or on those of donkeys. An aguador who possesses a donkey is an aristocrat in his line of business, and looks down upon the poor wretch who is obliged to be his own beast of burden. The mule and donkey are important animals at Vera Cruz, and a good part of the carrying business is in their hands—or on their backs.
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Frank and Fred paused to look at the Governor's Palace, an imposing edifice of two stories with a high tower at one corner. There are wide balconies on each of the stories, where the occupants can sit in the shade and enjoy the cool breeze whenever it happens to blow. A drawback to sitting there is the presence of the mosquitoes, which fill all the space not taken up by the Governor and his household. Not only do the inhabitants of Vera Cruz maintain a constant warfare with mosquitoes, but they associate intimately with fleas, ticks, and other bodily annoyances. Official station offers no exemption; the insect pests are indiscriminate in their attentions, and light on the brow of the Governor or the general in command of the post just as readily as on that of the humblest peon. If there is any difference it is in favor of the peon, as his tougher skin renders him less inviting to the diminutive assailants.
"Vera Cruz has had an interesting history," wrote Fred in his journal. "It was founded by Cortez in 1519, who gave it the name of Villa Rica de la Vera Cruz (the rich city of the true cross). The original site was a little north of the present one, and altogether the location of the city
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 has been changed three times. The last change occurred in the year 1600, and brought it to where the first buildings were erected by the Spaniards before Cortez made the formal location of what he intended as the maritime metropolis of the New World.
"The city has suffered in a great many ways. Leaving out the annual visitation of yellow-fever, which we have already mentioned, it has had occasion to mourn the advent of buccaneers, pirates, hostile fleets and armies, and occasional conflagrations and hurricanes. In 1568, and again in 1683, it was sacked by pirates, and many of its inhabitants were killed. In 1618 it was nearly burned to the ground by a fire that broke out during a northerly gale. In 1822 and 1823 it was bombarded by the Spaniards, who held the Castle of San Juan de Ulloa, on the island opposite the city, in the struggle of the Mexicans for independence. In 1838 it was bombarded by the French, and nine years later by the Americans. The latter captured it by coming ashore on the beach some distance below the city and attacking it from the land side, so that the surrender was rendered imperative. Some of the Mexicans complained that General Scott did not 'fight fair,' as he made his attack where they were least prepared for defence. Evidently
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 they expected him to march up to the muzzles of their guns instead of going around to the undefended rear of the city as he did.
"The shipping in the harbor was destroyed by a hurricane in 1856, and it has suffered serious damage in other years. President Juarez was besieged here in 1859 by General Miramon; two years later the city was taken by the French and Imperialists, and remained in their hands until 1867, when the death of Maximilian and the collapse of the Empire restored it to Mexican possession."
After breakfast the party arranged to visit the fortress which stands on the island of San Juan, already mentioned. At the mole, or pier, the only one of which Vera Cruz can boast, they hired a boat in which they were rowed to the fort; the distance is nearly a mile, and our friends were easily able to understand the unsafe character of the harbor of Vera Cruz. It is little better than an open roadstead; when high winds prevail landing from or embarking upon a steamer is impossible, and during heavy northers steamers sometimes put to sea for safety. There are no docks where vessels can lie; everything must be discharged or received by boats or lighters, and the uncertainties of the weather make the time of a steamer's departure very uncertain. The dangerous character of the harbor is said to cause the insurance companies to increase their rates when Vera Cruz is given as a vessel's destination.
"The fort is a grim-looking place," said Frank; "its walls are thick enough to justify the belief of its builders that it was impregnable. Whatever it may have been in ancient times, it is not of much consequence at
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 present, and short work would be made of it by modern artillery. No attempt is made to keep it in condition to resist a determined attack, all the cannon which it possesses being of ancient date; many of these cannon would be quite as dangerous to the garrison as to the enemy in case they were discharged. The story goes that it cost so much to build the fort that the King of Spain once called for a telescope, and pointed it at the west.
"'For what is your Majesty looking?' inquired one of his officers of state.
"'I am looking for San Juan de Ulloa,' he answered; 'I have spent so much money on it that I ought to see the fort standing out on the western sky.'
"Our guide pointed out some great rings of copper that were built into the wall of the fortress on the face next to the city. These rings were intended for ships to tie to under protection of the guns, but in the past two hundred years the water has become so shoal that only a small boat can come near enough to make any use of the fastenings. There are large court-yards inside the fort, where a whole regiment could parade, and the casemates are sufficiently capacious to hold a garrison six times as large as the Government keeps here. Parts of the walls are broken down, and no effort is made to keep them in repair. The chief use of the once celebrated fort is as a prison; they told us that about sixty or seventy prisoners were kept there, some of them being sentenced for life. We looked into some of the vacant dungeons, and thought them the most horrible places of imprisonment we had ever seen. They are badly ventilated, very little light can enter them, and the walls are damp and almost dripping with moisture. Escape is out of the question, as the water around the island swarms with sharks, and a prisoner who should attempt to get away by swimming to the shore would be eaten by these monsters of the sea."
An excursion of a pleasanter character was made to the city of Jalapa (ha-la-pa—a as in father); it should be called a journey rather than an excursion, as it consumed no less than three days. Jalapa is seventy-four miles from Vera Cruz and 4000 feet above the sea, and one of the prettiest places in Mexico. Our friends were obliged to rise at a very early hour, as the train starts at 5 a.m.; they went by steam for sixteen miles to Tejeria, and there changed to a tram-car............
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