BY grace of our guideour phrase bookand ourSalva-Webster Dictionarywe managed to pick up a good deal of Spanish duringthe Santiago campaignbut the one word our guide did not tell usthe oneexpression we did not look up in the Diccionariowas the very one we understoodmost quickly: its meaning was apparent the instant we heard it uttered. We shallnever forget comida and all that it stands for.
It means "food;" not breakfastdinneror suppernot food in dishes and served by a waiter in the hotelnot a politeknife-and-fork affair in any sense of the word. Comida is downright nourishmentsordidvulgar nutrimentof the kind that fills empty stomachs after a threedays' abstinence-- the kind that we ladled out of camp kettles to six thousandstarving refugee children at Caney during the second day's truce. This is comida.But to get the full effect of the word you must separate it into syllablespronouncing the i like double eand drawing it out into a pitifulquavering whine. Better stillyou must hear the word cried from six thousandshriveled mouthswith appropriate gestures in the direction of the lips and thepit of the stomach.
"Co-mee-dah! Co- mee-e-dah!"
We rode into Caney late in the afternoonat about whatought to have been supper time. For forty-eight hours the refugees from Santiagohad been coming in. The civil governor of the city had told the non-combatantsthat they would not be out of Santiago more than twenty-four hoursand hadforbidden them the use of any vehicles; what they carried they must carry ontheir backs.
At the end of the first day the refugees had eaten suchlittle food as they took with them on their exodus. The better class had missedthree consecutive mealssome of the poorer had not eaten in two daysand for aweek previous they had all been slowly starving in the beleaguered city.
The town of Caney is built around the plaza; a grove oftrees runs down the middle of this plaza; the churchused as a barracks on theday of the battleis at one endthe public buildings are at the other. When werode into this squarewe found it a veritable bedlam. American and Europeancrowds are brown. A cuban crowd is whiteand looks larger for that reason.Thousands upon thousands of men in white linen suitswomen in white skirtsandchildren in white loin-cloths -- when they wore any clothes at all -- came andwentup and downback and forthin and outweaving a mazea bewilderingshifting webwhere warp and woof alike were white. Each figure seemed to have aparticular definite destinationquite distinct from his neighbor's-- adestination which it was imperative he should reach at once; and for that reasonheor more often shesquirmed and pushed and writhed through the pressusingelbow and shoulder with all the strength of the emaciated body. But others therewere who sat in rowsdouble and triple rowson the edge of the squareproneand inert amidst the white bundles of their household effectsexhaustedlistlessstunned and stupefied by the terrific clamor.
Forfrom all these strugglingboiling thousandsfrom allthis seething mass of whitefrom the strained and shrunken throats of all thesestarvelingsone word -- a crya monotonous deafening plaint -- rose into theairknocking at one's earsassaulting one's attentionpersistentraucousapiercing wail: "Comida! Comida!"
In our haversacks we had hard-bread
We pushed our horses across the plaza to the church. Thered cross had just been established on a terrace adjoining. A negro trooper wason guardand inside the wallon the terrace itselfkettles were being set outand bags of corn meal opened. Herealonewith no one to help him but a coupleof utterly inefficient Cubanswe met with an old friendDr. Bangsof thehospital ship State of Texas.
Let us pause to make a note of Dr. Bangsfor he was atlast the right man in the right place. He was a stout manwith a very red faceand a voice like the exhaust of a locomotive. He wore an absurd pith helmetbattered out of all shapeand his beard was a fortnight old. But there was theright stuff in Dr. Bangs. Early and latehot or coldrain or shinethe doctortoiled and toiled and toiled; feeding the thousandsbuilding firessendingthis man for wood and that man for waterperspiringgesticulatingbellowingbut in the end "getting the thing into shape" directing and dividingthe stream of supplies till the last refugee was fed. But that was not untilafterward. It was a two days' laborand on that particular evening everybodywas still hungry-- hungry to starvation point.
At once he impressed us -- willing enough we were -- intothe service. "Nowfellows" he shouted-- he always shouteddid thedoctor-- "we want to get at the children first! Tell 'em to send up thechildren first!" With a crowd's instincta hungry crowd's instinctforfoodthe refugees had divined that the terrace by the church was to be thedistributing point. We went back to the edge of the terraceand with the fullstrength of our lungs shouted for the space of five minutes (after consultingour phrase book): "Ninos primero! Ninos primero!" "Comida!"shouted the crowd in answer. "Comida! Comida!" deaf to everything butthe clamor of empty stomachs. But somehow at last they understood; somehow atlast wood was foundthree huge fires were builtand camp kettles (borrowedfrom Mr. Ramsdenthe British consul) filled with corn-meal mush set a-cooking.It was six o'clock when we began. The terrace was just high enough to shut outthe view of the plazabut at every fresh suggestion that the distribution wasto begina waving forest of hands topped the terrace walland the lamentablewail broke out afresh"Comida! Comida!"
By seven o'clock this cry changed in volume. It was nolonger deep-toned; it began to be shrill and pipingand there were no morehands above the terrace wall. We did not like to look over the wall; it was nota pleasant sightand our appearance only awakened false hopesbut we knew thatthe children were assembling. "Tell 'em" roared the doctorwipingthe sweat from his forehead with the back of the hand that held the ladle"tell 'em it's 'most done-- tell 'em pretty soon now."
I went to the edge of the terraceand leaned over. It wasyet light enough to seeto see about three thousand childrenhalf of themnakedthe other half ragged beyond words. What a mass! Close to the gate thejam was terrific; they were packed as sand is packedso that they movednot asindividualsbut
"Poco tiempo!" I called to them. "Poquitotiempo!" And at last they understoodand were quiet for nearly a minute.When I went back the doctor took me aside.
"Now" he shouted"there's something I wantyou to look after personally. There's an old woman" -- he pointed her outsitting in a pathetic round heap on the chapel steps -- "who hasn't hadanything to eat in three days. When we're ready to distributeI want you to seeto it yourself that she gets something. Understand? She's been waiting her twohours."
I told him that I understoodand we went back to work. Tenminutes later the corn meal was ready. One of us was to stand at each of thekettles with a tin army cup in hand. The children were to be let in in groups oftwenty; and of these twentyfive at a time were to come up to the kettles tohave us ladle out the meal into their tin pails or cupsor whatever they shouldbring.
"Now do you catch on to that?" roared the doctor.
"Perfectly. Are we all ready?"
"Where's the old woman?"
She had gone. Tired out with waitingshe had quietly goneaway. For nearly three hours she had sat patiently on the chapel stepswaitingwaitingconfuseddazedand misconstruing the broken Spanish that was spokento her. Then at lastat the end of hopeshe had gone away. I could see herplainly in the imaginationcan see her nowher back bentweakworn outgoing away meekly almost at the very moment that the food was being brought toher. I had that old woman on my conscience for a long time.
The doctor went to the gate and let in twenty children. Buttwenty more instantly crowded inthen thirtythen fiftya hundredtwohundredfive hundreda thousand. The whole rout of starving little wretchesinvaded the terracetook it by assaultand huddled in one cornerdazzled bythe light of the firesbewildereda little frightenedbut insistent stillgoaded on by their hungerand muttering under their breath"Comida!Comida!"
Wellwe had to drive them back into their corner-- drivethem back brutally and by main strength. But even as I pushed and thrustalittle hand -- ever so little a hand -- took hold of my wrist. It was that of atiny girlalmost too weak to standbut she held a pitiful empty sardine cantoward meand whispered confidentiallywith a great attempt at cheerfulness"Comidaeh? Comida por me?" and put her handnot to her lipsbut toher stomach. We came to know this gesture afterward. So long as they pointed totheir mouths we could allow the applicants to wait their turnbut when theypointed to their stomachs we knew that we must be quick and that it was almosttime for the restoratives.
We began the distribution. We drew a line in the dust infront of the crowdand announced that any who crossed that line should have nocomida: that kept them in hand fairly well. They came up in groups of fiveandwe gave to each three quarters of a cupful of corn-meal porridgeand causedeach one to pass out through the door of the chapel so soon as his or hermeasure was full. They were docile enough thenand watched us
The worst of it was that the meal gave out before all werefedand we had to tell some twenty of them that there was "no mas estanoche" (no more tonight)and they were to come back "manana a ochohora." I do not like to think of this part of the business. To have been sohungryto have waited so longto have come so near and seen so many others fedand then -- Noone had better pass this over-- this and the old woman.
The last child had gone supperless to such bed as he couldfindand we were thinking of our own bedswhen a girl of perhaps sixteenpresented herself. "No more" we told her-- "no mas comida;come back manana." But it was not comida that this one wanted.
"Enfermo" she answered. I wish you could haveheard the pitiful quaver of the voice. "Enfermo" -- a littlea verylittle moreand it would have been a sob. She was very frail and a nice-lookinggirltaking her altogether; sick and absolutely alone amongst all thosethousands. "Enfermo" she said againlooking fixedly at the embers ofthe expiring fires. We had her taken over to Mr. Ramsden's housewith a notegiving directions as to what should be done for her. Poorfrailweak-voicedcreature! We never saw her again.
Making our own camp that night was no trivial affair. Wehad had no supperbut we were far too tired to think of cooking one. The horseshad been picketed behind the churchbut for their better security we broke inthe doors at the rear and led them through the chapel and out upon the terrace.We off-saddled in the chapel itselfandI am rather ashamed to addused thecommunion rail as a saddle rack. But there was little of the sacerdotal left tothe chapel at that time. It was extremely and intensely profanedwas thatchapelloopholed for Mauserswith Mauser ammunition pouches and bayonetscabbardscartridges and empty Spanish haversacksstrewing the floor andlittering the altar itself. Three hugehalf-empty boxes of clothing fromWalthamMassachusettsstood aboutand there were some Red Cross floursugarand meal sacks. While we were off-saddlingmy horse -- a broncho pony fromSouthern California -- elected to become frightened at the torn altar cloth thattrailed and flapped in the draught between two loopholesand for a moment hadthe whole place by the ears. And all this whileover the altarMary the motherof Godin the flaring light of the commissary candleslooked down upon us andthe disordered chapel as calmly as ever she had looked upon the kneelingpeasants in the light of burning tapers. It was a strangeincongruous scene--the shattered chapelthe bayonet scabbardsthe Mauser cartridges clinkingunderfootthe prim stiff calicoes and ginghams from Walthamand thecow-puncher's pony shying from an altar cloth woven by fingers that were dusttwo hundred years ago.
We were tired enoughHeaven knowsand keyed up to thehighest tensionso that one of the incidents that closed that eventful dayaffected us more deeply and keenly than otherwise it might have done. We wereall standing by the fire just before turning inlistening to the starvingthousands settling themselves to sleep close at handwhen the doctor suddenlyexclaimedin that thunderous trumpet voice of his"Wellfellowshere'ssomething I do every night that you can't do at all!" and with the words hetook out his left eye and polished it on a leg of his trousers. I was faint inan instantthe thing was so unexpectedso positively ghastly. Not even thesight of the division hospitala week beforehad so upset me.
When we woke in the morning--
Even army baconcoffeeand hardbread lose their flavorwhen this cry comes between you and your tin mess kit. We were not long atbreakfastand by the time I had come back from watering the horses the doctorhad the kettles going. We promptly ran short of woodand announced over theparapet of the terrace that all those who should bring us wood for the firesshould be fed first. To those who offered themselves for this service we gaveticketsmade by breaking pasteboard ammunition boxes into squaresand writingthereon the name of Dr. Bangs. For two hours the crowd around the terrace grewand grewand grewuntil I veritably believe half of Santiago was therestretching toward us innumerable empty potspansand tin pailsand withthousands of voices wailing"Comida! Comida!"
We let the starvelings into the inclosure of the parapetwhen the corn meal was readyand ladled to them by the houras we had done tothe children the night before. The children who had missed their food in theevening came back now and received double rations; but they fought on the stepsof the terrace-- menwomenand children-- and gashed one another with thesharp edges of their tinsas they struggled for first place in a way that wassickening to see.
Yet in spite of these things it was not always easy tobelieve that all of these people were in actual need of food-- as theyindubitably were. You almost perforce associate starvation with rags. It isdifficult to imagine a well-dressed person as hungry; you cannot but believethat clean linen and smart gowns cover well-fed bodies. Or even though you knowhunger to exist in such a caseyou can scarcely bring yourself to take itseriously. You refuse to consider it as anything more terrible than anexaggerated appetite.
There were plenty of such cases at Caney on that day. Wemet with one of themand made a mistake which we shall always remember. We hadbeen down in the plaza and around the outskirts of the crowdtaking picturesand snapshotsand were working our way slowly back to the steps of the terracewhen we came upon two very pretty and very neatly dressed girls of perhapseighteen and nineteen.
"Comida?" they askedboth in a breath.
We told them that we would ourselves get them comidaandat once; they should not wait for the regular distribution. Ahthat was kindthey answeredand they thanked us very prettily. With that the idea ofcorn-meal porridge vanished entirely from our thickstupid Anglo-Saxon mindsand we fell a-talking to them. Both would have passed for pretty girls anywhereand one of them carried a pink silk parasol. Of course we were idiotsbut it ishard to reconcile a pink silk parasol with famine; and though we knew that theywere hungrywe forgotand passed it over as the hunger of a girl at an eveningdance-- forgot
We stayed at Caney nearly all the next dayhelping thedoctorwho but for us was entirely alone. As for the relief committees composedof Cubansthe less said of them the better. They were supposed to cooperatewith the doctorand might have been of immense service during those terriblethree days of famine. They were therethese committeesfor we saw them as theycame to offer congratulations and to be presented. But beyond this theiractivity did not go. They did absolutely nothing-- lit never a firegatherednever a stick of wooddrew never a quart of water.
"I don't want your congratulations!" the harassedoverworked doctor bellowed. "I don't want your presentations! I want woodI want waterand ohI want those fifty cases of condensed milk!"
The loss of this condensed milk was a grievance which thedoctor could not forget. To the Cubans had been intrusted the duty oftransporting fifty cases from Siboney to Caney. The milk never arrivedand Iknow of one little baby who died in its mother's arms for lack of it. How manymore diedunknown and unnoted? Twenty? a dozen? six? Hard to say. That oneatleastwas not saved is laid to the account of that Cuban relief committee.
Food and workers were alike insufficient to meet thedemands of thirty thousand starving people on those first two days. We stayedand worked as long as we couldand a little after noon we rode away in adrenching rain. But for nearly half a mile down the roadas our steaming horsestoiled through mudfetlock-deepthe vague murmur of the crowd in the plazacame back to usprolongedlamentablepitiful beyond expression-- the cry ofpeople dying for lack of food.