CAN life anywhere else be like life in the Ancient City? Upon the first day thereof we are ready to swear you, Nay. Upon the one hundred and fifty-first I think we say, Amen.
With a kind of ingenuity of adaptability which one cannot call anything but maternal, the calm, queer little old town adjusts herself to our various whims and wants. Heraclitus has his woodpile; and when one is exiled from home with nothing to do, it is impossible to overestimate the sanitary effects of being obliged to keep a wood - pile, more particularly in St. Augustine, where, if you don't like to burn wild pine so long that it won’t go into the fire-place and so big that it sets the chimney on fire after it has got there, you can select tame oak with the bark on, or even, if you are very fastidious, can have it soaked to the stout heart from the last of those showers which “ never fall in Florida.”
Heraclitus, I say, has his wood-pile; not to mention the queer little market which one must visit at six o’clock of the morning, or starve; the market down in the antique plaza, by the far-famed old sea-wall, which looks like a caricature of a Grecian temple, and has for me (who never go to market) but one kind of antiquity and one sort of fame: therein was whipped the last slave who was publicly struck in the city.
The Disciple takes me to see her one day. I find an old woman, with stout arms akimbo, and a quiet face on which I look in vain for traces of her bitter past; she sports superbly a Scotch plaid turban, and even her name is Venus!
And who is The Disciple! Ah, never mind! St. Augustine knows her — for of course she is a woman. In the capacious chamber of her heart the rich and the poor meet together, for the Lord is the maker of them all. I say not she is the only disciple in St. Augustine, for as I tell you it is a godly city; I only say she takes me to see Venus.
But, dear me! I left Heraclitus on his wood-pile; you are always leaving something somewhere, in St. Augustine, — your hat, your gloves, your last specimen of coquina, the pen with which you were to write the volume on Southern Life, your head itself. I wonder how the native St. Augustinians keep their souls! To natures sprung from the lazy, golden weather it seems as if it might be so easy to misplace a little thing of that sort. And yet perhaps it were actually too much trouble to lose it. Or perhaps one reacts, from very atmospheric pressure, into the somewhat rigid sense of responsibility which seems to govern life in the beautiful city. We feel it, I think, before we are residents of a day’s experience. Must we not teach the negroes ? Should we not convert the Catholics? Can we not cultivate the natives? And surely I go twice to “ meeting ” where on the spur of the Northern conscience I go once. But if I were a negro, should I learn anything in such weather? And who would want to lose faith in the Pope while the sun is shining as it shines today! And what can a native care for a high standard of culture, who may gather shells of gold and purple, rose and pearl, forever, upon the singing beaches? “ Who would be a king if he could be a peddler? ” And so the days and chances slip.
Copyright, H. O. HOUGHTON & Co. 1876.
But still I left Heraclitus on his woodpile. And the soul of Ma Dame is blessed with verandas; verandas upon which the orange-blossoms will fall by and by from ardent and close-hanging boughs. And Our Sister will be sisterly, wherever she is. St. Thomas hath the mighty wilderness, and that gun which Heraclitus irreverently calls the life-preserver. He means that it never kills anything. We always explain the jokes in our party. For Merle, she has her own unlimited resources, not to mention the verandas and Ma Dame. And I — I have St. Augustine.
But what is life like in St. Augustine? It were difficult as life itself to say.
We construct tremendous plans for a winter’s work. The book boxes are emptied upon our parlor tables with an awful emphasis. Reams of fair, unwritten paper stare at us with eyes in which is no speculation; and the photographs of unanswered correspondents hang around my bureau like those memoranda of religious duties which fair saints pin upon their mirrors. We confidently begin by shaking our rash heads at the sailing-question or even at a whist-party, and are fain to consider the kindly hospitalities in which the little city abounds as so many fair-faced temptations to lure us from the straight and narrow path of the laboring woman who has come South to get well, to be sure, but who believes that nobody ever yet got well except by being worked to death. But, O demure and witching little city! behind the veil of a nun do you hide the face of an irresistible though irreproachable coquette?
Somehow, the blank paper lies folded blankly still; and to mar its white face were a kind of imbecile effort, to be repented of before it is made; but it is a comfort at least to look so learned as that parlor table does; and as for the dear faces over the bureau — why, in St. Augustine one learns to love an absent friend exactly in inverse ratio to the number of letters which one writes to him.
Wisely said the great saint from whom this perplexing little town was named, “ If you do not ask me what time is, I know; but if you ask me, I know not.”
I write " at midsummer, when the hay is down.” From the precision of life in a New England home my recalling thoughts wander perplexedly to the confusion of life in a Florida jaunt. What did we do? From the Northern summer to the Southern summer I turn in incoherent inquiry. There was too much summer. I was right to begin with. A year without a winter turns one’s head. Sternly I gather the fair, departed time, like the plates in a magic lantern ; shift them, one by one, upon a reflecting and reflective surface. And what in resolutely gazing have I saved to see?
I see a glimmer of long mornings in which we wander lazily to the old fort, just running over after our walk from breakfast at “ the best ” hotel, which, as I have never yet to my knowledge puffed anything or anybody in my life, perhaps I may be excused for saying has too pretty a name to be lost. We wander on then from the Magnolia to the shore, quite sure that we will stay ten minutes before returning to finish the chapter in Spencer, or begin the essay upon The Effect of Ancient Spanish Superstitions upon the Infant Colored Mind.
It is quite as likely to be I, as we. I like to be alone upon the fort. Beautiful, dreadful, massive thing! I like to play with it as ignorantly as a baby with an encyclopædia. I am grieved when " the season ” sets in, and the tourist who knows things stands in groups with his wife and daughters, discoursing of the bastion and the demi-lune, of the ramparts and the dungeons, of the exact inscription upon the old, old coat of arms above the door (though I don’t think he called it the door), which seemed so pretty till I heard him talk about it. I don’t want to be instructed about that fort. It spoils it all to know anything about it. It is enough for me that I was never in a fort before, and that this (unless it be the ruin on Matanzas) is the oldest in the country, and that from its summit I can see the magnificent line of breakers over the bar, which shelters St. Augustine so tenderly that she sits almost like an inland city, widowed alike from the traffic and the terror of the sea. I am content to sit ignorantly down upon the cannon-balls, and find out that they are shells; to peer unintelligently about the marvelous nooks and crannies and cells, which all have names of their own if one cared to ask them, but where I can only think that life and death have met in awful conflict in awful times; to creep, shuddering, after the not very sweet - tempered old sergeant, into the dungeon which was discovered in eighteen something, where the rock fell in and revealed the skeletons of human creatures hung to the walls in iron cages, starved in sight of food and water, and barred from the breath of heaven by solid masonry. But it matters little to me whether the Catholics did it or did n’t do it. I care only to get away and up the mighty broken stairway to the clear space where I can forget that blood ever flowed over the grass-grown stones, or that mortal cries ever stabbed the silent, amber air. Here one can almost rest. I creep into the shadow of a turret with my Browning. Perhaps, turning the leaves idly, I read: —
With your turrets and your towers and the rest!
Shut them in ! ”
But by and by the book drops helplessly down upon the shawl of many colors, which I brought from sheer Southern barbaric sense of hue, just to see the inscrutable sunlight caress it where it lies upon the old gray stone. Even Robert, the husband of Elizabeth, has no voices for me when Port Marion speaks. I slip in and out among turret and tower and broken loop-hole and battered bastion, bewitched to think how easy a matter it were to step a little near and nearer — to stand erect as I do this moment upon the daring edge—just to drop quietly off —
I am fairly proud of myself that I retreat in good order, and that Ma Dame’s sweet smile will not be frozen to-day about dinner-time as one rushes in to break to her the news that at the foot of the western rampart they found — Nonsense! But I wonder no more that all the famous towers of the tourist’s Europe are guarded in anticipation of impulses as nonsensical.
I retire an unbroken phalanx, and betake myself sharply, as if that could hold me in, to the tropical shawl and the tropical Browning.
Below me, in the sunny sand, groups of dusky little children shout for very joy of their young breath. Sad-faced, narrow-browed Minorcans bask, chattering, in front of doorless and windowless coquina ruins which they call home. The cracker’s wagon, drawn by a starving horse, crawls patiently over the flats, going home to the wilderness with its supply of “ grits,” by which the cracker meaneth hominy; and the cracker’s gaunt family, staring dully up at me, do not find themselves tempted to leap over from Fort Marion. Beyond, swaying like feathers in the strong current of the river, little boats of pleasure-seekers toss merrily. Against the warm horizon, as glad and innocent as babies, the fair and terrible Florida breakers leap upon the silver sand. And still beyond —
“ If you want your dinner,” observes Merle, appearing in sudden and bold relief at the top of the great stairway, “ or if you prefer to give up your seat to a perfectly ravenous party who came in by the last omnibus, and have vowed, permanents or no permanents, to be fed or die ” —
Ah me, for the essay on Spanish Superstitions!
Slide the magic lantern once again! And now I see a wonderful shimmer of long, long afternoons in which we will all go a-sailing in a “ yacht.” Everything bigger than a dug-out is a yacht, in St. Augustine. The first time we are invited to join the party of the Northern gentleman who has “ engaged the yacht for the day,” I think how grand we are. But I never am allowed to feel grand very long in this world; something always happens to it. My mortification is not. unexpected, though severe, when I clamber down from the little wharf into a sail-boat with calico cushions, an oil-cloth on the floor, and a funny, twosided flat bottom, upon which we flap crazily hither and yon against the rising wind.
But our yacht answers to the sound name of Elizabeth, and to her is the manly young skipper so loyal that in ten minutes we forget even the shark question itself. At first sight, the shark is a terrible blow to the romance of sailing in St. Augustine. In orthodox Northern waters, a possible accident has its actual charms. In the clear depths of emerald and golden death, how blessed to be lost! It were, after all, so peaceful and so slight a thing. But here — I struggle to forget the man-eater, six feet long, who was captured near the wall this very morning; and even the comfortable porpoises make me shudder; they whir, shining brown wheels, about us, and remind me of the living creatures which Ezekiel saw.
We sail, and sail. The little town grows distant enough to soften through all its pretty outlines; islets of shining sand drift by us, on which the silver gulls and the blue - black herons, the homelike “sand peep ” and the beautiful, unhomelike shells, have it all to themselves. Ah, what shells! Incredible that they should be selling for large prices by the quart, like candy in the Boston shops. They lie brilliant, vital, it seems sentient, beneath our touch, Like flowers. We beach the Elizabeth upon the silver bar, and wander like children among them. At first I object to gathering them, as I do to rifling a garden; and to the last, I find myself turning out of my way to avoid stepping upon the perfect and rich-tinted things; as if they had blood and could be hurt.
And now I find out what coquina is. I thought I knew when I purchased, on the second day of my arrival, a coquina match-safe at the curiosity shop, which for some unexplained but undoubtedly scientific reason did not hold water for the roses with which kindly St. Augustine keeps my lodgings glorious.
They tell me there are coquina quarries where one may dig forever for this beautiful composite of shell and sand; but I care little for the quarries; I would rather take home a broken bit from a house aged one hundred and fifty years, or one of the inimitable statues made therefrom by the colored native “ sculptor ” who is so happy in his art, or the vase that should have held water, as aforesaid.
Beneath our feet, as we wander to and fro under the great eyes of the breakers, masses of soft color streak the sand where my poor shells have been ground by wind and weather to colored powder, — red, umber, amber, and snow. Perfect and untouched upon the cool opacity of the background rest exquisite contours, as tiny and as delicate as blush-rose leaves. Here are the tints which we are wont to credit to the imagination of an artist, granting him at least the originality of having spread the rainbow upon his palette, and modified it to suit himself; the shy reserved shades of which nature is sparing: golds as subdued as if they but half made up their minds to become silver; silver reticent as frost; pearl which knows how to keep the secret of its reflections as pearl only can; violets pale as if saddened in a Claude Lorraine; rose as delicate as that half-detected blush which modesty itself suppresses and drives quickly into placid pallor; and that spotless cream - like white which is so much whiter for being warm.
We gather them tenderly; it seems sort of rudeness to crush them into flap ping pockets. I collect mine in the great royal crimson scallop shell whicl I find at high-water mark, among the weedless drift-wood.
“ Yes,” observes Our Sister sympathetically to the sentiment, “ the young ladies lake home those red shells to bake oysters in for supper-parties.”
Perhaps she does n’t mean it. I forgive her. But baked oysters!
Did they tell us that the beach was forty miles in length? To us it seems as if this sea-shore might stretch, like that from which little Paul’s mother sailed, “all around the world.” Our feet rustle bewildered through the glittering sand. It blows before us into rifts and drifts, like dry, unchilly snow. Since to-morrow is Christmas, let us make believe— it would require small effort of the fancy — that we sit upon a freezing field at home. But my palmetto hat blows in the wild, warm wind across my confused vision; the white linen dresshem is draggled in the gleaming surf; on the little islands “ sweet fields stand dressed in living green;” in my hand a magnificent cloth-of-gold rose, freshplucked from a generous garden, droops royally. We shake our heads and are perplexed. We can neither make a fancy like a winter, nor believe it when we have made it. There is no winter! There never was.
We sail home in thoughtful mood. Perhaps we are sad or homesick, or perhaps we are only confused. Or it may be that we are thinking of Christmas. At all events, it is growing a serious matter, and, drifting by some gorgeous and unfamiliar colors which beautify the ledge of Anastasia Island below the striped light-house like the barber’s pole, one of us breaks silence with a sprightly manner, to observe, —
“ What is that beautiful orange growth which adorns the shore? ”
“ I think,” replies St. Thomas, confidently, “ that it is coral.”
Ma Dame, less confidently, but still with the sweet spell of the romantic hour upon her, suggests that it is “a shell formation.”
“ Coquina? ” I ask, dropping a semitone, but true to the sentiment still.
“ Oyster - shells! ” says Merle, who always will break any spell that is not stone - china. It is not until we have fairly recovered from this bruise, which takes time, that it occurs to me to ask the non-communicative skipper what the beautiful object of so much wasted sentiment may be. Laconic and long to be remembered is the skipper’s answer: — “ Mud! ”
Is even the mud, then, so beautiful in Florida ? And surely he were a wise man who, cruising in strange waters, may always in a world like this know mud from coral even in the calm sunset of a Christmas Eve.
Still we sail: homeward to the homelike little city; and behind it, all the west is flaming. The grand outlines of the fort loom against the cloudless color, calm with the unuttered and unutterable passion of antiquity. The old cathedral tower points a peaceful finger to the skies, signaling in the great deaf-mute alphabet of ehurchly architecture certain old words which fall as calm as the now drooping winds upon the petty passions and perplexities of human story: “ Behold, like a vesture shalt thou roll them up and they shall be changed; but thou endurest.” Even Merle has ceased to look for oysters; we do not glance at one another’s faces, and it is long since we have spoken. The west is dying purely as we walk,mutely still, upon the gray old seawall, home; and in the little streets the people in the little shops are preparing to keep Christmas Day.
“ But you don’t say how we got stuck in the mud, and were an hour getting off the boat! ”
And does she think I would spoil my sunset or my Bible-verse for that ?
And now I see a procession of gray and golden twilights, in which I am not happy unless I go “ all alone by myself ” to see them light the barber’s pole upon the island, or to watch the fiddlers at their supper on the beach. Probably the scientific mind would not be content to know that the fiddler is of the genus crab, and there allow its useful information, like Dr. Hawes’s young men, to “ pause.” But I am content, quite. The fiddler looketh like a little devil-fish, and eateth with his hands, and cruncheth horribly beneath your feet, for he is too many not to be stepped on, walk you never so tenderly. These facts interest me in the fiddler. I perch myself upon a log below the fort, where the little black babies are making the most of their civil rights at playing see-saw, and watch the creatures—the fiddlers, not the babies — feed themselves upon the sand with the table manners of the best society. Particularly am I interested in the fiddler because he lives by himself, each one in his own den, dug within the silver sand. Was it disappointed love, or ascetic melancholy? Did he sigh for a lodge in some vast wilderness, and, lodging, was he happy?
Ah, there! sudden and glorious breaks against the reflected colors of the eastern sky my great Anastasia light. Did somebody tell me that it was to be seen from off the awful Florida coast four hundred miles ? Or was it four hundred miles that ship came in on purpose to look at it? It is plain that the fiddlers work sadly upon the unscientific mind.
I turn my back upon Anastasia in disgust, and wander off upon the deserted beach, paving my way with the agonies of fiddlers as I go. There is a gray field in which some unfamiliar dead brush lifts itself sparsely to the water’s edge; wonderful to me because of the rattlesnakes which are to be in it in March; a desolate spot. From sheer waste of the sense of desolation, I cross and recross it, looking for the rattlesnakes despite the almanac, and turning to glance over my shoulder at the fashionable outlines of the few Northern pleasure - seekers left on the sea - wall and ramparts, cut against the glow the solemn light-house makes.
Beyond the dead field there is a lifeless creek; on the border of the creek I know an old deserted boat. Grim is the pleasure in defying that malaria which “never is found in St. Augustine.” I creep into the old boat and defy the world to find me; the very fiddlers have lost track of me; even Anasasia has turned her shining face away. It grows dusk; is dark. Birds, whose names I do not know, chirp and whistle in the nearest cypresses and oaks; little white flowers, like our innocence, but they call them the forget-me-not, twinkle in the grass; the odorous, warm twilight shuts me in.
A thousand miles from home —
Have the fiddlers found me? Did Anastasia call? Was that a rattlesnake? Whatever the reason, I think it suddenly very dark; the rain which never falls in Florida has set in, weakly; the old boat is damp; I am wet, if I choose to think so; I clamber out and hurry back.
The beach is black, and, but for the booming of unseen surf, were deadly still: the fort frowns, a solid shadow. Anastasia only smiles through the rain, grave, calm, faithful, like a friend who knows no moods, and in whose nature is “ no variableness, neither shadow of turning.”
A thousand miles from home —
The marsh ponies come over as I walk by; poor little starved ponies, turned out to board themselves. What Floridians keep them for, Heaven knows! It takes them all day to find enough to keep their meek souls in their gaunt bodies, and I never observed that they ever went anywhere or carried anything. These creatures wade over from somewhere in the now rising tide. Two of them are standing drearily, nose to nose, in the quickening storm, as I come up to them. One, turning, scans me dully, comes down a step or two, and pathetically puts out his face to be caressed. Bless him! I don’t know which one of us is most conscious of giving a bit of needed sympathy. I hate to leave that pony in the rain.
It seems lighter, perhaps, where the rich and broken outline of the city gates is lifted against the little quiet churchyard, where the happy inmates sleep under crosses of white shells. Shall we too ever, ever sleep as quietly?
The drizzle is a storm now, and the people have put up their wooden shutters and all the street is dark. One little girl has forgotten to put up her shutters. She is braiding palmetto; everybody braids palmetto in St. Augustine; she thinks it is the fault of the man in New York city, somehow, that the braid brings but ten cents this winter, and that by hard labor she can twist only two braids a day. The pine knot in her fireplace is just lighted, and all the little barren room is hung with cloth of gold. She sits in the wooden rocking-chair, and rocks violently to and fro. As I stop to look in at her she breaks into a flat, strung voice, and braiding, rocking, sings, —
Sweet home ! ”
And now sets in the freezing life of the Terrible Winter. It looms over the country like a Titanic iceberg; even fair Florida sits shivering in the shadow of its chill.
At least, Floridians shiver. We are only cross. There is no suspicion of a frost; and on the hotel bill of fare, tucked among the roses and red pinks, the thermometer is reported for the day as smiling at forty degrees. But the splendid sun has withdrawn the light of his countenance from us; and from that dreadful river, where St. Augustine is so happy that it does not live, we hear wild rumors of dank and deadly fogs in which the Northern invalids sit ghastly, comparing notes of their diseases, about the hotel parlors.
Of course we thank Heaven, as is quite proper, that we are not upon the river. But nevertheless, and notwithstanding, we are cross. Our invalids pale down, and are sure that it was a great mistake to come to Florida. We count the weeks till we may safely venture to Aiken, Charleston, Philadelphia, home, —
over which St. Augustine penitently presides. We put on warm dresses and overcoats. Heraclitus renews his woodpile. We sail no more to beach the Elizabeth among the bruised and vivid shells. We keep much in-doors, and are astonished to discover how tired people may get of one another when they are there and cannot help themselves.
It is now that I will become wise, and scour St. Augustine for some new thing. I visit the old convent, where ten sisters sit making lace at two prices, the Catholic price and the Protestant; the barracks where the company is stationed (I never to this day have found out what for), and whence every evening, at the hour of the signal gun, floats over the city the same unsparing little dancing-tune; the colored Sunday-school where The Disciple is omnipotent; the obscure houses of the sombre Spanish Catholic natives, where That Other Disciple (though a heretic) is known and loved.
One day I wander into the cathedral to matins. Here a serene old bishop sits in purple velvet, among tissue-paper roses and unlimited gilt paper. Here are those rare specimens of art which all good Northerners flock to see; they are painted by the architect, we are proudly told. Critical expression fails me before these pictures. It is necessary to go to St. Augustine to appreciate them. Here the colored brethren, welcomed through the front door, sit in goodly numbers. Here, calm above the altar, rises the effigy of the city’s patron saint, and golden are the letters in which is spanned above his head the prayer which I slip out repeating reverentially,—
“ Sancte Augustine ! Ora pro nobis! ” Now, moved by that instinct which leads us to grow wise as we grow sad, I begin to search for useful information, in a fitful and depressing manner.
One day I ask my ingenious native dress-maker, who can put many a Northern “fit” to shame with her shrewd shears, if she has ever traveled towards the North.
Traveled? She has never been to Jacksonville; has never visited Tocoi; has never seen the St. John’s River. Why, nobody does in Augustine. Folks can’t afford it. Most of them never have been out of the city. They just stay around, and live — and die.
One day, again, I waylay a small boy in the streets, and ask him what the people live on, around here. Unhesitating is that small boy’s reply,— “Fish, and strangers!”
And once I propound to a dusky friend of mine a few antislavery conundrums, the first that I have ventured upon since I walked beneath the shadow of the Confederate monument, which bears the holy words, Our Dead. Perhaps I never understood, before, that they have their dead too — God help us all!
“ Florida, have you always lived here? ”
“Yes, ma’am” (no “ missus ” now; scarcely a relic of the old dialect left), “ I lived with my owner till peace. Me and my husband had different owners.”
“ Were they good to you ? ”
“ Good as most of ’em—yes; I ’ve got nothing special to complain of. I learned my trade with ’em—got so much out of ’em; I an’t left to shift and starve like some is.”
“ Where is your husband now? ”
“ He ’s in Georgia. He was owned in Georgia. He used to come and see me twice a year. I s’pose he thought I’d foller him after peace, but I was n’t going running after him! I s’pose he ’d got settled there, and it’s a good ways off; but ” — the woman’s heart breaks through the woman’s pride — “ but after peace he might have came!”
A Good Samaritan takes me one day to see Aunt Patty. Aunt Patty sits at the door of the neat little shanty whence she will be carried in due time to that good Old Woman’s Home which St. Augustine is delighted to honor. She is very, very old.
“ That,” says the Samaritan, “was once one of my goods and chattels. Aunt Patty, Aunt Patty! do you know me ? ”
But Aunt Patty winks and blinks blindly up. She does not know him. She is so near, now, the borders of that calm country in which they need neither wars nor rumors of wars to break the shackles of immortal souls, that she has forgotten that she was ever “ owned.” Aunt Patty does not recall the kindly smile or the gentle tone which once were Law to her. She does not remember, cannot tell. She only wonders, — who is the lady ? and the lady leaves her wondering still.
One week, two, three, and still we sit sunless and unamiable. People select these days to die in, apparently. One morning I am summoned to the window to see the queerest little negro funeral. The most famished of marsh ponies drags the old wagon in which the coffin rests. The immediate mourner boasts a crape veil and a white pocket-handkerchief. The more distant sufferers file by, just in from “ the country,” in country simplicity: the women wear men’s hats or white turbans; the men sport exhausted stove - pipes, and stare importantly around. Nobody cries, and the whole thing is like a Fourth of July procession of the Antiques and Horribles.
Another day I hear sudden music, and looking over into the dull street — ah me! the funeral of a soldier from the little garrison: only a private, what great matter? He lies in an open expresswagon. Apparently there is no coffin, though I may be wrong; he is wrapped in the true flag, and as they turn the corner towards the burial-ground, the truant sun struggles through the gray atmosphere and lights the grand old colors up. But his comrades, as they follow him, play that little dancingtune; I suppose it is the only one they know. The wagon jogs to it grotesquely, yet sadly, somehow, too. I shut the window and get away. I think it even sadder than a dirge.
These are the days in which the Florida wilderness grows so great, so suffocating, so sad a matter. I see in it the beauty of desolation, the dreariness of peace. Beyond the pale colors of the San Sebastian River it stretches calm, purple, eternal; miles of waste wherein, I fancy, —
Depths of poison, pitfalls, death, yet how beautiful with the shades of orange and of cypress and of pine; how calm with the consciousness of health in hidden lakes and springs; bow grand the sweep of its gray hairs above its lofty head! Plainly, the Florida wilderness comes of an “old Southern family.” No such gray heads in your Yankee forests, you may be sure.
But I am weary to the heart of it. In the sleepless hours when “that dog ” in which the South abounds makes night perpetually hideous, and when the St. Augustine rooster crows every time the dog barks, I pace my room and love not the mellow Southern moon for revealing the horizon’s uncanny outlines. Rather would I meet the clear eye of Anastasia, beneath which the restless waters of the harbor are now at peace. All night these two — the Great Desert and the Great Light—confront one another across the unconscious city. Perhaps they must be grave, these sleepless hours, for again there come to me certain solemn words, which slip confusedly together: The voice of one crying in the wilderness: I am the light of the world.
Twenty - one, twenty - three, twentyfive days without the sun! Now, fair and terrible as an army with banners he breaks at last upon us. The light of day has a new meaning, a fresh depth, clear to the core, burning and transparent as topaz, blessed as a late and unexpected joy. The dear old fire-places whose golden hearts we have almost won, we think, by long study and loving in the twilights of the clouded days, are deserted now without a pang; pale with neglect, their ardent faces shrink away, and we remember them no more, for joy of the eternal passion of the holy sun. Now the pretty toilettes at the hotel dinner are of white again. Now the Minorcan children bask again from dawn to dark upon the sand, and amuse me by flinging the expression, “ Oh, you Spaniard ! ” as a term of reproach across their quarrels. Now the young girl, my neighbor with the voice, awakes me every shining morning with the same confident assertion, —
And how I wish that somebody would give her a cottage by the sea, and let her try it; yet I like the trustful little song, somehow, and should miss it if she left the birds to sing alone. The mocking-bird is abroad now, and he takes up the same refrain. Let the birds and girls believe it, say I, as long as they can! One can half believe it one’s self, listening, half awake and half asleep, as over the budding grape and blossoming violet, and through the mingled perfumes of the white and yellow jasmines which fill the room, the serene young words persist in floating up, —
And now the orange-buds throw off their long reserve and cast themselves wildly, for very love, beneath the feet of the pure - souled sunbeams, which, “ without fear and without reproach,” have patiently bided their time. Now the very edges of the orange-leaves glitter like fine arrows, and the scarlet pomegranate muses of a bud. Now the tearoses of blush and amber, perfect like none other, clamber in riotous exuberance over the garden where grow four hundred varieties of the flower; and the famous tree, der einige the country over, fourteen feet in height, and thick across the trunk like a cypress, flames with blossoms. Now, over the walled garden of the good Protestant priest the clothof-gold roses nod to me like stars; and the priestess for love of the stranger without her gates will not pluck the stars from her floral heaven; they shall fall and “ die silently of their own glory.”
And now we are in no hurry to go home; we are not so tired of one another as we thought we were. We will stay and see the Colored Homes, and see the Colored School (everything is so sharply prismatic in St. Augustine), and see where the priests were murdered once; and sail the North River after scallop shells; and make the promised speeches in the Sunday-school, which for cleanliness and conduct puts to shame any Northern mission-school I ever saw; and sit at the feet of the father of the city to learn all good things both of the soul and of the body of St. Augustine, and grow statistical and happy.
And now it is impossible to believe that at home the East River is frozen stiff; that people are perishing in snowslides; that the thermometer in Indiana runs to forty - two degrees below ; that the world is dying of pneumonia. This is the wildest of fiction, and all owing somehow to the fact that the New York Times is four days old when it gets to us.
And now I will jaunt it down the river for a glimpse at the beautiful Mandarin home which the good heart of a great woman has made famous. Swift, fair hours in the little cottage, perched like a bird’s-nest so near the heart of the live - oaks that the leaves drift in upon me as I sleep - rare hours! — you are not the world’s, but mine.
But still I think I like not the St. John’s River, and come back to the Ancient City with something of the thrill of those to the manor born. And now, like broken dreams the last weeks stir and fade.
Those nine thousand visitors whom St. Augustine, a little city of two thousand souls, contrives by the modern miracle of the loaves and fishes to keep fed and happy during “ the season,” slip away imperceptibly like melting ice. In the curiosity shops, where the beautiful Southern birds — gorgeous sacrifices consumed on the altar of Northern feminine vanity— drop their glorious plumage, the crowds dwindle from evening to evening; the rarest duck and the whitest heron, the bluest jay, the most dazzling red-bird, and the purest of the royal rose-curlews have been “selected” away; the rage for orange-wood canes is abating; and the man who keeps one hundred baby-alligators alive in boxes smiles upon a fast - decreasing stock in hand. We are told that we can send these creatures North by mail. But righteous fear of Mr. Bergh constrains us.
We find in Florida a time - honored proverb : “ Carry one live alligator North, you ’ll never carry another; ” so we content ourselves by estimating, on the more simple principles of political economy, the amount saved in the matter of board-bills by being an alligator and not eating anything from January till March. I have my reserved doubts upon this latter point, I plainly confess. I observe that there are two kinds of alligators: the kind that wriggles, and the kind that doesn’t; and I maintain that that superior sunniness of temperament which admits of wriggling under such circumstances would not decline a bit of fresh meat or a drop of water. Most of the alligators, however, suffer under great depression of spirits, and have the air of people in recent affliction, to whom it were a sort of insult to suppose that they could have an appetite. On the whole, I like the alligator better when he has passed through that process of dental surgery which results in savage gold-tipped jewelry, and the unearthly whistle with which the small boy delights to yelp about the hotel piazzas.
But still we linger. One by one the hotel tables are folded up, but we do not start. The gentlemanly landlord regretfully gives us notice that he must close the house next week; but still we stay. Was there not a snow-storm but yesterday in Savannah? And how bewitching is the little city with her grave and quiet face. We stroll about the deserted streets, enchanted with their calm. One day we wander over the shops and riotously exhaust the morning in the selection of a single cane. Another day we are inspired, and will buy gray moss enough at twenty-five cents a bushel to stuff a mattress with at home; for you ’ll never be romantic about that moss again, when once you’ve found out what mattresses it make. And still another day we will wait, to drive across the beach of the San Sebastian, where there ought to be alligators in the mud, and musingly away over flats of the Spanish bayonet into the purple, poison heart of the beautiful swamps. And oh, for one more golden moon beneath which to see the breakers on the north shore throw up their bewildered arms in half-lights, like one of Turner’s gray pictures! in which to stand mute upon the unbroken beach, within the rockless shore, before the even sea, against the low, unclouded sky, —
The soul shall hardly khow.”
It is in these days that it begins to be whispered about that “ the schooner has n’t come.” For once a month from New York city there steals out a little schooner which provides the St. Augustine harbor with supplies, and but for that schooner St. Augustine would fold her hands and starve. The St. Augustine grocer is half a day’s journey from Jacksonville, but he deals with the schooner; and for that schooner he will pause, if he must pause, till the problem of future punishment is settled. Indeed, the schooner may play him false and go to the bottom of the Atlantic ; but for her with a confidence worthy of so glorious a cause is the St. Augustine grocer found
Twice in succession the schooner has been wrecked this year. But what of that? St. Augustine can trust. The luxuries, not to say the comforts, of life gradually disappear from the market, and the necessities acquire enormous prices, but still the veritable St. Augustinian is calm.
Brown sugar appears upon our generous hotel table: “ The schooner hasn’t come.” One wishes a lemon to make hot lemonade for the invalids, or to sweeten one’s temper upon the homœopathic law: “ The schooner is n't in.” You ask for a glass of ice-water: “The schooner is expected next week.” At your peril, break a kerosene lamp chimney, or recklessly strike two matches at a time,— till the schooner comes.
In our morning walks we come upon groups of men, whispering with awestricken faces at corners: “Thought they ’d sighted her last night, but it was a mistake. She has n’t come.”
A wild rumor runs through the town that the last cracker was sold yesterday for ten cents. I appeal to my grocer. It is true, there are no crackers — the schooner has n’t arrived.
There are no sweet potatoes — the schooner is delayed. Milk goes up to the Northerner’s price, twenty-five cents per quart, on account of the schooner. And now, ghastly lips take up the report before which even St. Augustine shivers: there is no hominy ! The very hominy comes from New York city, and the schooner —
The town is in a state of siege. The grocers close their shops and take their families on picnics to the North Shore. There is nothing to sell.
Life comes to a pause. The pleasures of slow starvation assume vivid colors to the imaginative mind. We seek the acquaintance of that enterprising man who is currently reported to have salted down three billions of the pretty little wise, red Southern ants for beef-steak in the hotels next winter, and converse with the alligator man as to the feasibility of getting out of the city by mail, in little boxes with a hole to let the air in.
One afternoon it is breathlessly whispered that “ some apples have come to town from Jacksonville.” I rush to the apple store and pay a price which it would ruin my reputation for veracity to relate, for a dozen little russets; and we are safe for one day more.
Merle has but just suggested that we telegraph North for means of transporting the bodies home, as it would be impossible to procure a coffin in the city should one require it before the schooner were in, when the cry, “ A sail! —a sail!” is echoed from street - corner to street-corner, and St. Augustine, peaceful, triumphant, gaunt, and satisfied, swells and surges to the old sea-wall to be fed.
The schooner has come! And now at last we will surely sadly turn our faces northwards. It grows too warm for anybody but the fiddlers. Ma Dame takes fond farewell of her tearoses, and I wander alone for the last time to commune with Anastasia on the darkening beach. I see that we pack our trunks in bitterness of soul, and are fain to stay forever where we are. I see that we regretfully take leave of the kindly strangers whom one short winter seems to have converted into time-worn friends.
And while my thought turns swiftly from this hospitable face to that, he from whom no crying need of this little world was ever turned away unsatisfied, he on whom it leaned for counsel, and whose memory it will arise to bless, the father of his city, a thousand miles from her loving heart, lies dead.
And now I see that the sun, hot and red, has set for the last time for us, upon the Florida wilderness. Too tired to be sentimental over it, too warm to watch it, we think only that it will rise tomorrow— and that, after all, the world is wide.
Perplexedly we rise to-morrow with the dawn. We check our baggage at the door for Boston. We cheek our tears up-stairs in self-defense. But I see the sweet face which has made home for us strangers in a strange land a little blindly, and scarcely know whether Ma Dame speaks to me or not, or who they are who wave good-by to us from here and there, or who it was that from the roadside has put white roses into my hand through the omnibus window, as we ride away.
The ancient Spanish monument upon the plaza dims from sight; the warm, bright sea beyond grows pale; the orange groves waver, and all the familiar outlines flit, We rattle over Maria Sanchez — who is a river — so prosaically hard that we forget to look our last at the cathedral tower, beneath which blazes the city’s faithful prayer, day and night which heart and lips go out from her repeating: “ Sancte Augustine ! Ora pro nobis! ”
Elizabeth Stuart Phelps.