It was a hazy, dreamy, sultry February day, such as comes down from the skies of Florida in the opening of spring. A faint scent of orange-blossoms was in the air, though as yet there seemed to be only white buds on the trees. The deciduous forests along the banks of the broad St. John’s were just showing that misty dimness which announces the opening of young buds. The river lay calm as a mirror, streaked here and there with broad bands of intenser blue which melted dreamily into purplish mists in the distance.
Late in the afternoon a tiny sail-boat might have been seen, lying in almost immovable stillness in the middle of the river. She was a picturesque object enough, with her white sail reflected far down in the blue mirror; but it was no sport to the party on board to find themselves becalmed there, with the sun sinking westward, and the shore where they were to spend the night full three miles away.
That sail-boat contained us and our furniture and belongings, just going to take up our abode upon “our plantation.” The history of our plantation so far had been briefly this: the year of the closing of our war, two captains of the Union army, who had been serving in Florida, had conceived the bright idea of hiring a plantation and making their fortunes in raising cotton. The process of reasoning was very simple: cotton is the one thing sure always to be wanted in the world; Florida is the country which can grow the best long-staple cotton; and here is a plantation which may be hired for a very reasonable sum, and negroes versed in the processes of culture on all hands asking for work. So the valiant ex-captains rented the famous plantation, which in this story we shall call Laurel Grove, and went to work the moment peace was declared.
The next year they reinforced their numbers and capital by drawing to their firm another ex-Union captain and a practical New England farmer. The party on the sail-boat consisted of said practical New England farmer with his wife, who had just come down to meet him, and the mother of one of the ex-captains, who had also come to assist in the inauguration of a family state for this hitherto bachelor firm. There was likewise in the party the hope of our agricultural friend, a white-robed New England baby in long clothes, whose principal care seemed to be to see to it that his mother should attend to him first, whatever else in creation there might be to attend to.
There was, moreover, a clergyman in feeble health, who had come to see what the air of Florida would do for him, and who, reclining in the shadow of the sail, relieved the tedium of the way by playing airs on his violin, — a choice old Amati with notes as smooth as the St. John’s at his smoothest.
But, oh, the treacherous river! how many can testify as to that provoking middle passage, when, having come precisely to the point where the shore is two miles away on either side, down flaps the sail, the faithless zephyrs go off laughing, and leave you to rock idly to and fro and enjoy your meditations!
“I guess the wind will spring up when the sun goes down,” said the skipper, as he stretched himself out for a comfortable nap.
“But that will delay us till after dark!” we cried, “and here are our bedsteads and carpets and things; why, there’ll be no time to get anything fixed to sleep on.” For the plantation house, be it known, was yet unfurnished, except as a soldier’s bivouac, and we were expecting to spend an afternoon at least in making our sleeping-rooms habitable.
The skipper surveyed us with a glance of placid and serene amusement. Like a true Floridian, he had learned to take the moods of the St. John’s without disturbing himself much about them, — we should get there sometime; and at any rate hurrying or worrying would do no good, so what was the use? As he predicted, about sundown a little civil, quiet troop of breezes came down and wafted us very slowly, with a dream-like motion, toward the shore, or rather towards a long pier that projected more than a hundred feet into the water, where we were landed.
The pier was shaky and apparently untrustworthy, and in the gathering twilight we steered past it gingerly, and landed on a smooth white sand beach overhung with splendid live-oaks; then we took our way up a long path, about half a mile, through cotton fields, where the fine white sand was over our shoes at each step. At last we came to the plantation house, a rambling, one-story cottage, with a veranda twelve feet wide in front. It was situated in a yard inclosed by a picket fence, under a tuft of magnificent Spanish oaks. By the time we had arrived the short twilight was over, and all our gentlemen friends hurried in a body down to the pier to assist in the landing of our furniture, saying to Marcia and myself, with the cheerful insouciance of the male sex under such circumstances, “You can just sit here in the veranda, you know, till we bring up the things.” Well, we did “just sit” alone in the dark and darkening veranda, the inexpressible dismal stillness settling down every moment deeper and deeper. Black, dusky forms tramped silently to and fro in front of the veranda as time went slowly on. The landing of all our furniture and bedding over the long, shaky pier was a work of time, and it seemed to us that hours went by. The baby was hungry, and indignant at the delay of supper and the general unpleasantness of the situation; he lifted up his voice and expressed himself with the energy and vehemence characteristic of his kind. His cries drew to us a tall, gaunt, black shadow, who said in a chuckling voice, —
“He’s hungry. I’d get him some milk, but dey’s done gone with the key; can’t get nohin’ till dey’s come back;” and she cackled a laugh at the absurdity of the situation, in which we felt small inclination to join. In the increasing dimness we could scarcely see her, but she seemed like some uncanny gnome laughing at our perplexities.
At length, after an interval which seemed to us interminable, we heard the cheerful voices of our men-folk returning, and the rattling of the cart-wheels. They came back in the highest spirits; they were delighted to see us, and running over with the most innocent and supreme delight in the country, the climate, the accommodations, and everything which pertained to the enterprise we had come to join. The key was soon forthcoming, and in due time so was supper, and the dusky gnome appeared much more canny when revealed by the lamp-light. She was introduced as our chief cook and general attendant, Winnah, the most active, versatile, ingenious, and energetic of negro mammies. She gave us warm welcome, and appeared equally amused and delighted with our arrival, and surveyed us and our clothes with artless and openly expressed admiration.
When supper was over, it was found to be past ten o’clock, and there was no time for unpacking. The captain nearest akin to us put his tent pallet at our service, and stretched himself on a blanket, to keep guard for us, at our side; for, sooth to say, the forlorn, ruinous room, whose broken windows were curtained only by cobwebs, was not reassuring. The whole establishment was like a lair of banditti rather than a home for settled Christian people. A roll of carpet, hastily spread on the dining-room floor, formed a bed for our clergyman; and so, one way or another, we were all disposed of for the night, and slept soundly. The next morning dawned as benign and heavenly as only Floridian days can. Nobody could be out of humor or dismal, with all the world around in such an exquisite frame, and even the extraordinary nature of the accommodations in which we had to set up our housekeeping tent failed to discourage us. For we had come straight down from the land of whirling storms and deep snow-drifts, and to find ourselves here in mid-February dressing with open windows, amid the soft, dewy freshness of a June morning, was a novelty and a marvel that exalted our spirits. All things seemed possible in such a lovely climate. At breakfast we reminded one another of these pleasing differences in congratulatory tones, calling to mind, with many a little shudder of recollection, how the wind was blowing and the snows were drifting in the land whence we came, while outside we could see the wild plum-trees white with fragrant blossoms, and hear red-bird and mocking-bird making merry in the trees.
It is to be confessed that it required the help of this fine flow of spirits to sustain us when after breakfast we began to take a housekeeper’s survey of our new quarters.
The plantation, we were told, had been in former days the leading one in Florida. It included nine thousand acres, — there was a touch of the magnificent in this fact. It had employed five hundred slaves. It had raised quantities of the long-staple cotton, held to be the very finest variety of that necessary article; it had raised, beside, harvests of sugarcane, and in the days before the great frost of 1835 was said to have had a fine orange of productive grove, which, by the bye, not a trace remained.
The negro quarter was a regular village of well-built and comfortable little houses, speaking favorably for the humanity of the former masters. There was the overseer’s house, a respectable cottage near by; there was a large barn, and a gin-house for the cotton, — the extent of the accommodations indicating a business done on a large scale.
The planter’s house in the midst of all this was the unpretentious cottage we have already spoken of. It was a story and a half high, having chambers above, under the roof. On the ground-floor was a wide hall running quite through the house, with rooms opening on either side. To this central portion an addition had been built, containing two lower and two tipper rooms. At one end of the broad veranda, connected with it by another veranda, was a one-story octagon pavilion, built, as we were informed, for a music room, and having a large window in each of its eight sides. Near by this house was another cottage with four rooms in it, which we were told was in former times devoted to the schoolroom and the lodging of the teachers employed for the planter’s children.
Now it must be borne in mind that for five years this whole estate had been lying waste, while war bad been waging along the banks of the St. John’s, and now this and now that party held possession. The fields had been tramped over by bands of stragglers, and the house from time to time made a convenience of by those nondescript parties who always hung round the skirts of an army. The windows were many of them broken, — a fact thought lightly of by our gentlemen friends in a climate so balmy as this, — and every part of the house was more or less dilapidated. We were informed by our young officers that they had been for weeks engaged in strenuous efforts at house-cleaning, by which the house had been brought into its present habitable condition, and it was evident that they looked upon it with no little complacency as proof of their skill in housekeeping. We were therefore forced to suppress our exclamations of dismay, and to endeavor to join with them in cheerful assurances that it would do nicely with the few extra touches we should be able to give it.
It was true, one of the hall doors had a broken hinge, which made it impossible to shut it; but that was no matter, since nobody wanted it shut in the day-time, and at night one might set a chair against it. Burglars were unknown; our suggestion that somebody might want to get in nights was only laughed at. In fact, on warm nights, they said, we could sleep with both doors open, for the benefit of the air, in Arcadian security.
We had brought down a barrel of crockery ware, and before unpacking we peeped into a pantry on one side of the hall. It was ankle-deep with rubbish, — old shoes, old hats, old bits of harness, in short all the miscellaneous accretions of a camp life. One gentleman ingenuously admitted, “Oh, well, they hadn’t thought of clearing that out, but if we wanted it should be done.” And forthwith a stout negro was busy hoeing out the débris and carrying it off by baskets full, to be burned in the yard; then Winnah, with scrubbing-brush and pail, completed the process, and when our plates and dishes were wiped and arranged on the clean shelves, she chuckled and cackled and crowed with delight and wonder. Our crockery ware, to be sure, was a collection of all the odds and ends—the fragments of sets, the superfluous or invalid dishes—that had gathered in our Northern china closets. There was scarce a plate or a cup that had not a crack or a nick, but in Winnah’s eyes they seemed splendid, for Winnah had all her days been only a field hand, and small had been her stock of household lore. Her admiration of all our improvements, however, was like a cheerful chorus as we went on.
After a few days we had succeeded in giving what we fancied was a tolerable air of comfort to our house. The eight windows of the pavilion were draped with muslin curtains, the floor was carpeted, and we had improvised by domestic upholstery certain lounges and ottomans which gave a creditable air to the room; and having made it gay with vases of yellow jessamine and the wild phlox, with which the fields were overrun, we began to feel it quite presentable. We had a call from one of our nearest neighbors who lived only five miles away. Mrs. R—— was an old inhabitant who had been on visiting terms with our predecessors, living in abundance and comfort in a beautiful and highly cultivated place on the banks of the St. John’s.
She told us tales of the splendor of the former occupants of the house: how they kept a French cook and an elegant table, amid gave superb dinners; how the pavilion we had chosen as our parlor used to be their music room, with a grand piano and a harp and all manner of musical instruments resounding there; how they had five hundred field hands at work, and raised more cotton than any plantation in the State. We felt very decadent and insignificant in hearing all these fine stories, for we were working only thirty hands, and had neither French cook, butler, nor coachman, nor piano nor harp. But we had golden hopes for the future: there were the cotton fields, — and cotton was king, — and in due time we should arise and shine; our ship of gold would come sailing joyfully in.
But hearing these tales of former grandeur, we could not but wonder at the primitive coarseness and roughness of the construction of the house we lived in. The fastenings of the doors were coarse, common iron latches; the rooms were not plastered overhead, but ceiled with boards, which had shrunk so that the unsightly cracks were visible between. All the wood-work bore marks of unskilled carpentry, and carried us hack to the days when a plantation was a little state in itself, depending for all the arts of life on the half-educated slave laborer; when people raised on the farm not only their own corn and sugar, but their own carpenter and plasterer.
There was no evidence of æsthetic tastes in any of the grounds surrounding the cottage. The yard, shaded by the splendid oaks before mentioned, was spotted with little rough buildings thrown up for various purposes of mere convenience, without regard to ornament: there was a large brick oven, with a roof over it; a milk-room propped on posts, and built with a double wall like an ice-house; a well, also roofed over; and a smoke-house for meats. The house itself was lifted upon live-oak posts about three feet from the ground, affording full sweep for circulation of air; but to our unaccustomed eyes this want of a solid foundation gave to the building an awkward appearance. Cellars, we were informed, were unknown in Florida, and the celebrated wine-room of the former planter was in the attic of the house. The kitchen of the mansion was at suck a distance that we wondered how a hot dinner was ever possible. It was a cabin by itself, with a yawning chimney some ten feet wide and looking straight up into the sky; and the dining-room was across a yard and up a flight of steps. The idea of a French chef marshaling the entrées of a dinner party under such circumstances gives a new conception of the national ingenuity.
Our neighbors, it may be well understood, were not many. Our nine thousand acres kept us pretty well out of society, but we did have a visit from one very characteristic and rather picturesque personage whom we shall call Long John. One day, when our gentlemen were all out, we found this individual tranquilly sitting in the veranda smoking a pipe. He was a tall, thin, loose-jointed person, dressed in homespun clothes, and in all his appointments indicating total indifference to points of personal nicety. He was no stranger to our gentlemen, who had, in hunting expeditions, sometimes availed themselves of his skill in wood-craft, for he was reckoned the best shot in all the region, and, as we were told, could snuff a candle with his rifle at thirty paces, and in all that pertained to forest life had the instincts of a Leather Stocking.
All this, however, was unknown to us, when we found him established as aforesaid, and we supposed that he was somebody come to see one of our captains on some definite errand. No such thing, however; for after he had sat smoking about an hour, and we began to regard him with inquisitive looks, he seemed to feel that conversation was in order, and, taking his pipe from his mouth, remarked “that the branch was pretty high below there, and he allowed he’d stay with us awhile, till it run out,” — a proposition wholly unintelligible to us, who had not yet learned that all small streams are called in cracker dialect “branches,” nor that “to allow” was used as synonymous with to “think.” When our gentlemen returned we found that our guest was in truth an old acquaintance, and the exquisite quiet and ease with which he received their greetings, making himself perfectly at home and staying to dinner and to supper, was something quite amusing.
“Is he going to stay all night?” inquired Marcia, anxiously, as evening drew on.
“Oh, certainly, — all night and tomorrow, too, for all anybody knows,” was the answer.
“But we have no room, or bed!”
“Oh, that makes no difference. Give him a pillow, or a blanket, and he’ll be all right.”
In fact, our guest, noticing the slight appearance of consultation, affably remarked to us that we “needn’t mind him; he could camp down most anywhere.” And so, when we broke up for the night, Marcia arranged our new lounge for him, of which he took possession with meek and quiet contentment, and we left him placidly gazing at the last brands of our evening fire.
Long John, however, had his entertaining points, and while sitting round our light-wood fire one of our captains, who knew him of old, amused us by drawing him on to relate some of his war-time experiences.
“There’s been a deal of hard fighting here in Florida, Mr. Johns, hasn’t there?”
Mr. Johns’s manner was always mildly ruminative. He thought over the question quietly for a minute or so, then squirted a straight shaft of tobacco juice at the fire, and answered deliberately, —
“Wal, now, there’s ben some pretty tall runnin’ here; can’t say so much for the fightin’!”
“Why, they got you into the army once, didn’t they, Johns?”
Another pause, another shaft of tobacco juice, and then, in quiet, moderate drawl, —
“Wal—yes—they did. Ye see they hed a draft, they called it; sent and tuck me ’n’ a lot o’ fellers up to the camp o’ instruction, they called it. I didn’t see no use in’t; I didn’t see what I wanted o’ a camp of instruction! I could draw a bead and hit my mark better ’n any man on ’em, and wha’d I want to be lyin’ round loose in a camp o’ instruction?”
Here Johns made a pause, and seemed to descend into himself in contemplation.
“Did you run away?”
“Wal—yis; I jest tuck off and come home to tend to my own affairs. I didn’t know nothin’ ’bout thir old war, and I didn’t keer nothin’; ’t wan’t none o’ my business, nohow, and I wanted to be tendin’ to my crops and my critturs; so I says nothin’ to nobody, and comes home.”
“Well, did they let you stay there?”
An ineffably droll expression passed slowly over his face; he spit once or twice vigorously, and answered, —
“Did they send after you? How was it? Tell us, Mr. Johns.”
“Wal, ye see, they sent Ben Bradley and a squad o’ fellers for to take me. I was out in the woods with my gun, and I see ’em coming, and I got behind a tree and p’inted my gun at ’em and called out to ’em to stop. Says I, ‘I shall drop the fust man that comes further!’ Wal, they stopped. They knowed I would—they knowed I gen’lly hit, and so they stopped; and Ben, he called out to me, ‘Look here, Johns,’ says he, ‘we’re come to take you.’ ‘Wal,’ says I, ‘ye jest can’t get me, cause the fust man that starts to do it I shall shoot.’ ‘But they’ve sent us to take you.’ ‘Can’t help that,’ says I; ‘I won’t be took.’ Wal, then they stopped and sort o’ talked it over a minute, and then Ben, he calls out kind o’ friendly, ‘Come now, look here, Johns; jes’ let us come up and hey a talk with you; we jes’ want to talk it over friendly.’ ‘No, thankee,’ ses I, ‘ye can talk where ye be; I can hear ye where I be. I don’t want ye no nearer.’ ‘Look here, now, Johns,’ says Ben, ‘they’ve sent us to take you, and ef we don’t do it it’ll be the worse for us.’ ‘And if ye do,’ says I, ‘it’ll be the worse for me; so that’s square.’ ‘Wal,’ says he, ‘we shan’t know what to say to ’em when they ask why we didn’t bring you.’ ‘Wal,’ says I, ‘there ain’t nobody knows you’ve seen me but jest yourselves and me and the critturs. I shan’t tell on ye, and the critturs can’t, and ef ye’re fools enough to go back and tell on yourselves I can’t help it.’ Wal, they jest went off and let me alone that time.”
“And didn’t they try again to catch you?”
“Oh, wal—yis. One time I was out in my ‘dug-out,’ on the river, — rifle down in the bottom of the boat. I hears a whoop, and looked up, and sore enough there was two o’ them fellers on the bank p’intin’ their guns right at me. ‘Got ye now, Johns!’ says they. ‘Wal,’ says I, ‘I give in. I’ll come to sho’.’ Then I give a sort o’ spring, as if I see suthin. ‘Good Lor’! wha’s that crittur behind ye?’ says I. Them fellers both turned to look, and I catched up my rifle and drew a head on ’em. ‘Look out for yourselves now,’ says I, ‘I am goin’ to fire!’ Tell ye, them fellers tuck to their heels lively, and I jest made for the other side o’ the river fast as I could paddle. Wal, they let me alone arter that, but they come once when I was out huntin’, and burnt up my house, and cut down my corn, and driv off all my critturs.”
“Why, Johns, they cleaned you out, didn’t they?”
“Wal, they did, but I’ve got things fixed up agin, — got my house up and my crops in, and my critturs, and I hope you’ll all come and see me; stay ’s long as ye want ter.”
The invitation, given in such sacred simplicity, was doubtless more sincere than many another in polished circles, as two of our number proved, when, a week after, they got belated coming home from hunting, and stopped at Johns’s cabin. There was true Arab hospitality, — the best of all there was at their disposal, and no apologies for what there was not. A large tin pan of boiled hommy, flanked with a pitcher of cane syrup, formed the meal, and was served out to them in earthen pint bowls; and at night Johns and his wife gave up their beds to the company, and spread mattresses on the floor for themselves.
As to Johns’s cattle, of which he had now a fair flock, the mode of acquisition was easy to guess. It was only necessary to take here and there and anywhere a fine young calf that he found running loose in the woods, and, applying his branding-irons to it, make it his thereafter; and who could contest the mark? We could fancy time leisurely way with which he settled the right of the matter with himself: “I had calves, and these might ’a be’n some o’ mine, most likely was, — nobody could say they wasn’t; any rate, they’re mine now!”
Nothing is more unlike a Northerner’s ideas of property management than the way the Floridians manage their cattle. We had with our plantation, as a part of the assets, fifty head of fine cows; but we never saw them all together; most of them were roaming the forests. About sixteen young calves were shut up in an inclosure, as a means of drawing home their mothers to be milked. When the mothers were let in to the calves, the milker came, too, and the calf on one side and the milker on the other conducted the operation. Winnah was the superintendent of this department, and milked in a pint cup, which when filled she emptied into the larger pail. Our sixteen cows in that way yielded about two gallons at a milking.
It is a matter of pride and boast with the farmers and proprietors to have large flocks of cattle and once or twice a year they look them all over and mark the calves that have come into existence during the interval. In our drives we often met the cattle drovers on horseback careering the woods after their cows; and the forest towards evening resounded with a certain musical yodel, or cow call, and with the crack of the long cattle whip, which rings like the report of a rifle.
There is no shelter provided for cattle, and in many cases no food except what they can help themselves to as they range the woods. When the long grass of the forest, justly named wire-grass, becomes dead and sere, it has been customary from time immemorial to set fire to it and burn out the woods. These fires meet one at certain seasons of the year on all sides, and the only wonder is that the resinous pine forests do not catch and burn up; but they do not. The palmettoes and underbrush all go to destruction, and the land is blackened for miles. After this comes up the soft young wire-grass, and the season of good pasture begins.
The large, rich planters in Florida had taken some pains with their stock, importing from Italy and from India such as they thought would be adapted to the Floridian climate. Our cows showed the marks of superior blood and breeding, another of the remaining traces of the former grandeur of the plantation.
Now as to our plantation arrangements: on the old estate there had been a thousand cleared acres devoted to cotton and sugar-cane. Of these our more humble means enabled us to cultivate only two hundred. Our laborers were good, steady hands, engaged under written contract at a stipulated price of from eight to twelve dollars per month, according to ability. The old plantation régime was adopted, because they were accustomed to working in that way, and in no other. At gray peep of dawn “Mose,” our head man, blew the shell, and forthwith from the line of little cottages turned out all hands, men and women equally. They were divided into gangs, with a leader to each gang, and went directly into the field, putting in three hours of good work, when all came back to get their breakfast, and then again to the fields till dinner time, and then till night.
They impressed one as a sober, steady set of people, and, having worked all day, their relaxation was to go into a prayer-meeting and sing hymns and listen to exhortations till ten or eleven o’clock at night.
There were two or three preachers among them, and sometimes we sat outside upon the door-step, listening to the strangest mixture of words that could ever be put together. It was really touching to see the solemn, earnest, breathless attention of rows of those dark faces to words which to our white ears were utterly meaningless. Yet when we remember that the devotions of some of the most cultivated races of Europe are offered in an unknown tongue, we must think that the power of certain sounds to stir up religious feeling is a matter of association, and not at all of the intellectual faculties.
We brought down with us a cargo of spelling-books, and on the first Sunday after our arrival we assembled our hands at the house for divine service. Our clergyman led the music with his violin, and then for sermon read and explained the ten commandments to an attentive and serious audience. We were graciously informed by Winnah afterwards that the sermon met with great acceptance, everybody thinking that it was just the preaching his neighbor ought to hear, as is usually the case in good Christian congregations. But they were all dreadfully astonished and scandalized at the violin, which they appeared to consider an instrument especially devoted to the service of Satan.
Dancing is the one thing which every negro man or woman can do well by nature. The merest lout among them becomes graceful as a dancer, and it appears that dancing is selected as the one thing to be given up when the postulant thinks of joining the church. We thought to ourselves that we could select other tests more important, — talking against one’s neighbors, for example; but in their view this was the one sign of self-surrender, and the violin, as the excitement to dancing, was therefore held as a profane thing in divine worship.
After service there was a distribution of spelling-books made, and never were gifts more eagerly and gratefully received. The poor souls seemed to think that reading was a thing that would come in a short time, if only they had the books, and thankfully accepted the offer of the ladies to help them in their lessons; but oh, who can measure what a task the acquisition of the English language is to those who come to it in middle life! We have before us now a picture of our “Tom,” a great Hercules of a fellow, lying on the ground in his nooning, with the spelling-book before him, and the sweat starting out on his forehead, as he puzzled his patient way through the ab, ib, ob, — cabalistic signs on the lowest door-step of knowledge.
Many never got through the wilderness of the spelling-book into the promised land of the first reader; but some few persevered. Those who gave up consoled themselves with saying “their chillen should learn,” and read to them; and the little ones did learn with a rapidity astonishing to their elders.
We would like to linger here over many curious scenes and histories of those old plantation days, but we must not make our story too long. Our feminine ranks were recruited by one of our captains, who went North, married, and brought down his young wife to add to our cheer. We rode, we walked, we sketched. Rambling along the beautiful bluffs, we each selected spots where we would build our houses when our ship of gold came in. Sometimes we started out for the day, with provision and sketching materials, and with guns and ammunition for our gentlemen to shoot alligators. A beautiful island, where there were groves of wild orange and lemon trees, was a part of our plantation. There we landed, and while the hunters were off shooting we kindled our fire, made coffee, and prepared sylvan meals. Once they came home tugging a great alligator thirteen feet long, as a model for our sketching. Then came the cutting up and skinning: the skin to be made into boots; the fat to supply the finest, most limpid machine oil for the cotton-gin. In the stomach of the monster we found pine knots, morsels of brickbats, and part of an old tin can. Nothing, apparently, came amiss to him. He must have been a genuine specimen of the scriptural leviathan, who “esteemeth iron as straw, and brass as rotten wood.” The memory of such days under the wild orange-trees by the white beach of the St. John’s is pleasant yet, but we must hasten to the finale of our story.
Well, our cotton grew and increased and flourished, and spread out as fair and flowery a field as hope ever sported in. Cotton, in itself a beautiful plant, was more beautiful in our eyes, as every yellow and pink blossom spoke of a golden future.
It was thought by the best judges that there was upon our fields a crop which would bring a profit of ten thousand dollars over all expenses. We dreamed of it as sure, and already, in imagination, divided the spoil and reinvested for larger harvests.
Alas for human hopes! Our brave captains who had come safe through many battles were defeated and routed on this field by an army which came by night, without banner or band of music. This was the way of it. One day, in looking over the cotton fields setting full with their buds and bolls, we descried a little black worm about two inches long, with a red stripe on either side of his back. This was the first Army Worm, the commander of the advance scout. We picked him off and killed him. Next day twenty came to his funeral, and the day after that the Army was there on leaf and stalk and bud! All through the hundred acres there was the sound of a chewing and craunching direful to hear. In two days our beautiful cotton field stood gaunt and bare, without a leaf, as if a fire had passed over it. Ten thousand dollars did those reckless marauders eat, and then vanished as they came, and left us desolate.
We made in all, perhaps, two bales of cotton! Our scheme was over, our firm dissolved. One went to editing a paper, another set up a land agency. As for us, we and ours bought an orange grove on the other side of the St. John’s, and forever forswore the raising of cotton.
But as at the bottom of Pandora’s box there was a grain of comfort, so there was in ours. Though we made nothing, and lost all we invested, our hands were all duly paid, scot and lot, — in many cases with the first money they ever earned, and it gave them a start in life. That has been the one consoling reflection when we recall the tragedy of Our Plantation.
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