A Florida Farm
OUR purpose in going thither was primarily to make money. Incidentally, we hoped to find vigor in an outdoor life, and other pleasant possibilities allured us and led us to embark in the venture. The venture seemed promising. Immigrants were pouring into the state, and land-prices were rising. Lake Osseeyo was linked by its drainage canal with a chain of navigable waters, which flowed at last into the sea, and by the permanent lowering of its level a vast margin of rich soil was dried. The chief settlement of the region was already a city, and the capital of a county ; not a paper city of the land-speculators, but a municipality, presided over by a mayor, misruled by a board of councilmen, and provided with schools, churches, and drinking - saloons. A newspaper devoted itself to its praises ; rail and water carriage met on its long pier. A Mississippi steamer, with towering funnels, swung at anchor in the offing. Another, belonging to the drainage company, lay belching black smoke, or swept away toward the horizon with a ribbon of foam unwinding from its broad stern wheel. The tattoo of the builder’s hammer sounded all day in the woods and by the water.
We had seen many towns and villages, in a prospecting tour ; we had an extensive acquaintance with land-agents, and we were disheartened by the memory of many ineligible offers of property. We liked little that was characteristically Floridian, except certain agricultural possibilities of the winter. In this mood we had waked, one morning, at Osseeyo City, and looked out to see what it was like. For the first time in many days we had slept refreshingly; no mosquitoes, no sultry heats, had jaded us. A steady wind laden with forest odors was drawing through the open windows ; the globe of the sun lay on the verge of a wide rippled water, crimsoning fresh meadows and the trunks of innumerable pines. An intermittent tinkling of bells, a smell of sawn cypress wood, a delicious chill of the morning wind, stirred certain fibres of happy memory. We seemed suddenly to be listening to the clank of Swiss cowbells, and inhaling the fragrance of dew and unpainted pine, in some inn of the Oberland. It was a far reminiscence, for the meadows and forest glades were level as the lake ; but it pleased and curiously predisposed us. Here, at last, was coolness; here was green grass, and a pleasant un-Floridian impression of Florida. We looked sanguinely out into the blue morning.
After breakfast we lighted cigarettes, and glanced about indulgently for the city. At first we saw nothing more urban than sparse pines and their steady shade, cropping cattle and their moving shadows. But the city disclosed itself, as we wandered about, skeptically credulous, subtly prepossessed by the absence of mosquitoes and land-agents, ready to have faith in a sub-tropical region where the May breeze was vivifying and the turf firm underfoot. The clusters of dwellings proved to be more numerous than we had thought, for the city was laid out on a generous plan, with an eye to the future. When we had visited the residence quarters, we strolled upon the hard sands of the lake shore and admired the vast bowl of blue ripples. As we looked, the wind freshened ; dark flurries scudded over the shining level; a little sailing - boat bent to the gusts, threw up a white furrow, and shot into the sun-path. We loved wind and bright water ; we felt a joy in sails as of a seabird in its wings. We did not say so, but our dream of farming in Florida was blent with a vision of water, and the ploughing of waves in this manner seemed germane to the purpose.
So when we reached the blue frame “ blocks ” at the pier, the basking steamer, the hardware store, the two grocery stores, the dry-goods store, the druggist’s, and the saloons, — fronting the morning sun with blistered paint and foggy glass, — we were already won over in some measure. Our hearts did not sink at the pyramids of scarlet canned goods beneath a festoon of calf boots and calicoes, at the loungers on the unswept doorsills, at the whiff of spilled liquors from the saloons. Rather, we smiled at these things, and found them more urban than we had expected. A cowboy, with a broad hat and jingling spurs, gave them a fine frontier flavor, as he issued from a saloon and rode jauntily off, his whip-lash whirling and pistoling about his head.
In due season the land-agent appeared, and we fell into his lap like ripened fruit. It was of quite a little principality that he disburdened himself in our favor, — a great lake - fronting meadow, fringed about with virgin pinelands. The woods came to the water’s brink at one corner, with a house-site, as if we had so willed it. A strip of silver sand, firm and broad as a highway, coasted the meadow and shelved beneath the clear lip of the lake. We departed, with lightened purses, to return in the autumn.
In September I engaged the services of a young New Englander, named Rufus, and put up with him at the Osseeyo City Hotel. A camp - kit followed us from the North, and a serviceable cedar boat, with sculls and a jointed mast, which we christened the Egret. We bought a brisk-gaited gray gelding and a green wagon, and drove daily to the principality, the sawmill, and other points, upon our business of settling. At last all was made ready, and the trunks, camp-kit, and provisions were loaded on the green wagon. My heart sank a little, now that the time was come. Osseeyo City assumed an unwonted pleasantness ; the hotel was beginning to exhale a faint prophecy of dinner. But I was outward bound, in the rôle of a sturdy pioneer, and I must cover my qualms with a smiling face. I unmoored the Egret with a great appearance of unconcern, and ran out the oars, while Rufus drove off upon the load.
An alligator on the beach appeared to be the only tenant of my demesne, when I grounded the Egret; but as I entered the wood-edge I perceived oxen yoked to a load of yellow lumber, and the driver reclining on the grass. A building-site was chosen, and the fresh planks fell with a hollow clatter on the grass. When the driver was gone, I strolled off and reassured myself about the spot. A small oak grove was on the lakeside to the left, another to the right. Two lanceolate tufts of saw-palmetto flanked an open way between, and the blue water showed all along. The land broke from a low terrace to the beach. It was a site made to hand.
Rufus admitted it, when he drove up with the creaking load. We accordingly fell to with hammer and saw ; and when the dusk began to thicken, the timber anatomy of a small cottage glimmered already among the pines. We hastened to lay planks on the joists of the upper floor, and had a tent stretched on these, and the gray tethered beneath, when the night closed in. Rufus made coffee upon an oil-stove and opened a tin of meat; and the tent, with cots neatly spread and a swinging lantern above, took a homelike look, as we supped from a pine box. So I tried to think, at all events, and I remarked upon it to Rufus, who assented. But this was the official view. The forest lay all about, shuddering with breezes and vocal with crickets and strange movings in the palmettos, and the solitude seemed to creep into the tent when the ladder was drawn up and the light put out.
The sky was exquisitely mottled, as we went down to the lake, after some hours of uneasy tossing followed by a sleep. The clouds stretched high and far, like a vast frostwork, over the dawn, and I thought I had never seen anything so vivid and so delicately flushed. The still lake glassed it to the horizon, and the mirrored sky rose like a lifted banner in the ripple from our feet. The splash of the water-buckets startled some long-billed birds that were spearing for fish in the margin, and we made our toilets in a whir of withdrawing wings. We kindled a fire, ate and drank ; and the day’s work began.
The woods rang with our hammers, day by day ; but the little house grew slowly. The grass went wintry with sawdust and shavings ; billets and plankends lay thick about, and the details of construction appeared likewise to accumulate. Doors, windows, stairs, closets, verandas, fed on our brains like a fever. Amateur house-building was an economy of dollars, perhaps, but it proved to be costly in time and strength. Finally, it seemed best to call in a man of the craft. Rufus’s face grew visibly younger when this decision was announced, and the gray showed brisk heels as he galloped off for a carpenter.
The carpenter came presently, — a trim figure of a fellow, with a shotgun over his shoulder, and a half-filled gamepouch beside his tool-bag. He saw the situation at a glance, and met it like the quiet woods gentleman that he was. I was n’t a carpenter, was I, he tactfully inquired. Well, he 'lowed perhaps I was n’t; and carpentering was a trade, sure enough. He had worked at it himself a right smart while, but it was puzzlin’ even to him sometimes.
I was now a cognoscente in joinery, and took pleasure in his skill. He thumbed an edge-tool like an artist; he would sit on a heady scaffold, his long legs dangling, plant a nail in the ceiling, and bring his hammer nonchalantly true upon it, where I must have lain on my back, and still have bruised the planks with wild target-practice. Cupboards, framings, rails, and lattices grew like exhalations. A tiny stable was set up as one builds a house of cards, and at length the gray ceased to look over his manger upon our dinners, and the tent was furled.
My partner, Farley, had now joined us with a reinforcement of energy, and the time was come to settle down seriously to the business of husbandry. Practically, Farley and I knew little of this business, but we had an acquaintance with the theory, like young physicians ready for patients. We ploughed several acres of grass-land by the lake, and left the turf to decay for the spring garden. The ploughed land “ turned up well,” Rufus said; and in the late winter, as the sun began to rise from the solstice, we sowed cucumber seeds in the warming soil. This was pleasant, light labor for breezy mornings, and we permitted it to be irradiated with a hope of profit. Winter cucumbers in New York, we knew, were sold like choice roses. We could not look for the top of the market in late March or April, it was true, but we were not avaricious : a few hundred dollars per acre, we observed, would do for a beginning.
The field lay along a low dune of beach sand that gleamed against the lake. Tall woods hedged the inland boundary, and a great waterside prairie broadened from one end. We made mounds with the hoe, worked a handful of phosphate into each, and leveled the top. In these we traced trenches with the fingers, sprinkled a line of seeds, and covered and 舠 firmed ” them in. A week later we sowed a second line, and in another week a third, to make triply sure against mishaps of cold. It was the third sowing that found favoring heats, and far on in March the vines were beginning to creep outward from the hills. It was late even for a return of a few modest hundreds of dollars per acre ; but we blithely hoed and hoped, and the mocking-birds sang, with mellow throats, above the speckling blossoms.
The mocking-birds, much at ease, fluted in the balmy noons ; and the cucumber vines, likewise much at ease, lengthened and branched, till the field was a tangle of overlapping leaves. Market quotations for cucumbers went slowly down, and the vines manifested no concern. We made ready for the crop, with crates and shipping-plans, and the vines nonchalantly sunned their rank leaves and bedecked them with yellow bloom. “ Consider the cucumbers of the field ; they toil not, neither do they spin.” It was a beautiful sight, and we tried to look upon it as Solomon might have done. It occurred to us that we might gather wisdom, even if we could not gather cucumbers.
The blossoms began to fall, and we moused sharply among the vines. And lo ! on a sudden, a cucumber ! Farley discovered it, and we gathered about it with becoming emotions. There it was at last, a cucumber, an indubitable cucumber, — lilliputian, indeed, but complete in all its parts, green and spiny, with a festive blossom at the end. Farley and I knelt and adored it, as it were. It was like the joys of paternity.
Rufus looked on with a sardonic humor which he kept for rare occasions. “ Git out your crates, — git out your crates,” he said grimly : “ time to ship the crop. Crop ’s small, but so are the prices ! ”
I turned to him, unaffected by the innuendo, the flush of fruition in my face. “ I say, Rufus, how long does it take a cucumber to grow up ? ”
Rufus’s face grew red, his spare frame underwent a contortion ; he slapped his knee and burst into a fit of laughter. “ Don’t you know? ” he cried, choking. “ Oh, fifteen to twenty years, without the weather’s warm. If it is, four or five days.”
In four or five days, the weather being warm, the cucumber had grown up, and the vines were teeming with pickles. We began to ship the crop toward the end of April, and we ceased to ship it when the first returns came in. We kept the wisdom for our own consumption.
After the cucumbers were gathered the weather grew summer-like. We had taken the precaution to acquaint ourselves in advance with the seasons by means of sundry pamphlets issued to induce immigration. We were aware that the Florida summer was more genial than the torrid summer of the North. Fanning winds spiced with the resin of the woods, a shining equableness, showers with a glint of lightning to manufacture ozone, brief aspersions withdrawn at the sojourner’s convenience, a general blueness and balminess,—such we understood to be the Florida summer.
We were a little surprised, therefore, to find it hot, blazingly and blisteringly hot. The May sun rose, every morning, like a huge ruddy coal. Despite the resinous breezes, possibly fanned by them, it burned swiftly to an intolerable incandescence, and smote us with languor as we toiled forth to our tasks. It flagellated our backs, our knees weakened beneath it, in the field ; our lips parched with thirst; we seemed about to ignite, but when we had drunk rivers of water a merciful perspiration burst forth and prevented the conflagration. Nevertheless, we accomplished much. I do not know how we did it, for it was a feat merely to exist. Perhaps the heroism of this performance nerved us to further effort. We not only existed : we cooked meals and ate them ; we cleared them away, and went out to delve and plough ; we routed pillaging cattle and pigs ; we added a great stretch of tillage-land to the cucumber field, and fenced it.
But it was not till the rains of summer came on that we fully realized the horrors of this delightful season. The first showers brought wafts of coolness and allayed the burning of the sands. They brought, too, a changed aspect of the monotonous earth and sky. The white scalp of a cloudy Himalaya would appear in the blue, and soon there would be a range of insufferable snows beetling toward the zenith. After the languorous dream of a sub-tropical morning, it was stirring to see the splendid energies of the air, the sweeping shadows, and the dramatic burst of lightning and wind. The ground trembled with the following thunder, and the world went out in a fog of driven water.
After a time the skyey pageants ceased to be events ; the lightning began to javelin the pines about the cottage, and the weather fell into a lamentable aqueous intemperance. The soil filled to the surface, and exuded water like a soaked sponge. We could go nowhither without wading ; and when the sun came out, it was to blaze on a waste of wetness and fill the air with steam. The time was come to rest from our labors. We abandoned the farm for a little to the elements and the frogs.
We returned somewhat soberly for the second season’s work. Reports from the farm region had been all of rains and flooding waters. Despite its drainage canal the lake had come steadily up, like a rising tide. The beach lay beneath a fathom of water; fishes swam in the arable land ; the canal and the drainage company were a mark for curses. But the weather “ faired off ” at last, and the ebb set in. When the higher soil had dried, beds were made for cabbage and cauliflower seeds. This was pretty gardening work in the mellow autumn sunshine. The beds were heaped, leveled, and overlaid with fine mould; then they were “ firmed ” with a trodden plank, and sprinkled to a uniform moisture. A toothed implement made shallow holes for the seeds, and these were dropped in one by one and carefully covered ; for the cauliflower seeds were costly. Within a few days the beds were quick with files and phalanges of pale shoots.
There are, I dare say, keener delights than the cultivation of cabbages and cauliflowers, yet I am not sure of it, as I recall the fascination of pottering in the brown earth and taking a hand in its miracles, — not with the languid sense of the sedentary man, to whom a cabbage is merely a cabbage, but with faculties quickened by fresh air and good blood, and a pocket modestly sanguine. For the cabbage and the cauliflower and most things that grow in a pot-garden are but little known to him who sees them only in the pot or on the plate. To see them thus is to know them in their death, and the man who merely assists at their obsequies and inters them stolidly in his belly has as small notion of them as the citizen digesting a meadow lark may have of the carol in the grasses and the flash of the wings. If he have a soul, and an eye which is more than an optical convenience, the gardener will walk among his vegetables with a joy beyond the smacking of lips. He will see a country-lass-like comeliness in the lusty leaves of his cabbages, and thump their green polls as he might fondle a cheek. He will gaze tenderly into the white faces of his cauliflowers, as with pinned leaves he wimples them from the sun.
Pleasant it was to sow seeds ; pleasant, also, in the late afternoon, to sprinkle the young plants with a rain of clattering drops. Farley and I would oftenest do this by ourselves, our heads, necks, and forearms bared to the soft wind, our legs naked above the knees for the lake-wading. It was an outward trip, with the empty water-cans swinging, the feet first in the cushiony plough-land, and then on the firm beach and in among the netting sunbeams of the margin ; the eyes on the vast slumbrous level, melting to violet in the offing. It was an inward trip, with the muscles stiffened to the burden, the legs and arms cooled by the dip, and the eyes on the curtain of pines, taking redness of the low sun. Forth and back, forth and back, each turn a change in the deepening color, perhaps till the sun was gone, and the silver of the moon was in the long ripple and the brimming cans. To walk to and fro with the watering-cans and whistle in the twilight, — this truly was a wage of the day, if it had been wearisome and parching; for the heat and cares of it were done, and here was its quintessence in the commerce with calm beauty and the fluting of mellow notes, — mellow notes for the maker, although a sorry enough sibilation in others’ ears, if they had listened; for the whistler whistles to kindle his fancy, and wakens fairy flutes and horns, unheard by others, with the thin piping of his lips.
The ears of Rufus would now and then hearken by the cottage stove, and his mouth would echo my staves — bettering them, I dare say — in a mocking travesty above the frying-pan. As I came in, he would eye me quizzically and ask if I had been whistling for my supper. Upon my accepting the thought, he would clap a mound of griddle-cakes on the table, with the remark, “Well, here it is, then.” And with this we would seat ourselves, Farley, Rufus, and I, whilst the dogs beat their tails on the floor.
The sun shot a milder and more oblique ray as the autumn waned, and the evenings grew chill enough for a hearth-fire of pine-knots. But the cauliflower and cabbage plants throve with the copious dews, and in November and December we set them out in the field. The transplanting on a large scale was novel to us, but a system was soon developed, and the work took a military method. A little force of hired hands was marshaled as the sun began to decline. One hauled water and filled casks deposited about the field ; another drew the marker and cross-marker; others uprooted plants from the beds. When the sun was an hour or so from the lakerim, the plant-droppers went ahead, like skirmishers, the main transplanting body followed with flourishing trowels, and the waterer brought up the rear. Finally, the whole force turned about and filled the watering-holes with a motion of the feet.
By the middle of December the fields bristled with thrifty growth. The soil had been made fat with muck from the marshes composted with mineral plantfoods. The cauliflowers shot up with extraordinary vigor ; their leaves rustled like crisp silk and drenched us with dew to the waist as we walked the rows in a search for heads. At last creamy buds appeared here and there at the hearts of the plants. Shipments began in January. The heads were cut late in the day, when the air had cooled. After supper, Farley, Rufus, and I would hang lanterns in the packing-house, and labor till the evening harvest was disposed of. The heads were neatly trimmed of leaves, mopped to remove vestiges of dew, covered with white paper, and closely packed in crates or ventilated barrels. Sometimes the work would be over by midnight. Often the morning sun would be scarlet on the pines as we marked the last barrels. The loads went off early to avoid the noon heat, and were dispatched from Osseeyo City by express.
The epicure garnishing his midwinter meal with cauliflower guesses little of the sedulous labors that purvey it for his palate. I once sat near such an one in a New York restaurant, and saw him fastidiously degust the tender flowers and growl at their costliness. “ It ’s shameful, simply shameful! ” he declared. “ The growers must be a parcel of robbers ! ” And he glanced at me as much as to say, “ You feel with me, I’m sure.” But I did not. I looked at his smug cheeks and gluttonous lips, at his soft hands and bulging waistcoat, and wished that he might earn his tidbits in the sun. “Sir,” I thought, “you are deficient in imagination ; you reason hastily upon abstruse matters. The gentle cauliflower is unvengeful, but there is indigestion in it unless it be genially absorbed. You are gazing on a purveyor unaware. He wishes you no ill, but he is just. He mildly disagrees with you, — and prays that the cauliflower may do likewise.”
At this period we were uncertain of the profitableness of cauliflowers, but we hoped much from them. The first returns were fabulously encouraging. The commission merchants poured dollars and encomiums into our laps, and we went about with a dream of wealth in our eyes. The fame of the crop and of the returns went abroad like a murder, and the world looked in upon us on a sudden. We were called upon day by day to tell the secrets of our success and blush in a circle of listeners. If we had a key to wealth, it was plain that other fingers were itching for it. A journalist wrote us up, our story was blown upon the winds, and the region and ourselves were enveloped in an atmosphere of fable. It appeared that we had raised some hundreds of barrels of cauliflowers per acre through the virgin richness of the soil, and realized more than the profit of an acre of wheat upon each barrel. Our costly applications of fertilizer and other minor facts were overlooked in a spirit of statistical proportion, and the account bristled with dollars.
We presently had occasion to take our fame somewhat grimly, and to tarnish it with a reputation for mendacity by revealing the facts. The earliest cauliflowers had been shipped in cool weather, — that started them crisp and sound; but a warm spell followed, and our consignees wrote of decay and unsalable lots. There was still an average profit, however, and we hoped for better luck. But without warning the cold returned in a long, keen - blowing northern wind, and the bulk of the crop was harvested with a sickle of frost.
It was our first taste of freezing weather in Florida. The winter before had been cool at times. We had looked out in many a sharp dawn expecting to see a rime on the fields; but there had not been so much as a feathered grass-spear. The frost that killed our cauliflowers was without a fellow for fifty years back, and we inevitably took it for the exception to the rule of mildness. This was the general view of it, till it was found to be the beginning of a term of cold winters, and but a balmy forerunner of the great “ freeze ” of 1894.
As it settled upon us, we rallied cheerfully to fight it. The day went down in a yellow burnished glow beyond the woods; the northern wind flowed out of the twilight in a broad stream, and the crisp grasses and pine needles sang with it. Spanish moss was heaped over the maturer plants ; great fires of fat pine were kindled on the northern edges of the field, and a curtain of smoke drifted all night beneath the stars. But at dawn the soil was frozen in the very lee of the flames.
On the following day the sky darkened as if for snow, and the wind whitened the lake in a steady roaring blast that sheeted the pier with frozen spray. The distinctions of a thousand southerly miles were done away, and for two days we had the biting winds and iron furrows of New England. On the third day the thermometer rose above the freezingpoint, and a warm sun shone out. The cauliflowers, which had been embalmed by the frost, drooped and fell into decay, and we began to practice philosophy. The cauliflower field was replanted with potatoes, beans, cucumbers, and other garden crops, and something was saved from the season’s wreck. The returns, indeed, were considerable, and a qualified success with the frosted cabbages further heartened us.
We entered the third season with some confidence. The greater part of the plough-land was devoted to cabbages and potatoes, which had specially thriven and had proved marketable. The tillage now included a great marsh, dried by a further lowering of the lake, a mellow residuum of decayed bog plants, on which the thrifty crops lay like designs on velvet. We had gathered an efficient force of hands of the “ poor white ” class, a class which our experience inclined us to esteem. These came from various Southern States, and brought a habit of industry less nervous and superficially energetic than the Northern, but not less telling in the long result. Commonly, also, they had tact and a flavor of courtesy, and were men with whom a gentleman might be at ease in the field as with a homely variety of his own species.
As the season advanced, the bulk of the increased crops made us take to the water for our freighting. A lighter was built and moored off the beach, and this was heaped, in the early morning, with packed crates and barrels, and taken in tow for Osseeyo City by a steamer. The cabbage heads, gathered in sacks, were stripped of loose leaves and wedged into crates; the potatoes were sorted by sizes and barreled. If the weather allowed, this was done on the beach, with the lake shimmering at hand, and perhaps the smoke of the approaching steamer quickening the toil. Three hoarse blasts of her whistle would be the signal for every nerve to be strained ; the last loads would be hurried aboard, the mules and oxen splashing the bright water; and then all would be still again, save for the farewell blast and the throb of the departing engines.
The harvesting of potatoes was a sociable toil. The men plied their digginghoes by twos and threes in adjoining rows, with an accompaniment of gossip and ringing laughter. It had, too, a zest of subterraneous exploration like mining. One stroke of the hoe would unearth a disappointment, perhaps only a single big tuber among a cluster of “seconds ; ” but the next would make up for it, and lay bare a hatful of fat potatoes. The tubers came clean and abundant out of the brown marsh soil, and made a great volume of valuable shipments.
We now went often to town, for the mail or groceries, in the little Egret; and a sail in her was a delicate waterpleasure, for she was apt in all sailing points and a light pull for the oars. She would slip swiftly over the shining miles, the ripples tinkling at her bow, and bring us home again with no more delay than a little waiting on the wind, if it were calm and we disinclined for the oars. These trips to civilization polished us and sensibly thinned the rust of the woods. We affected a stoicism, as persons not unused to the world ; but, emerging fresh from the wilderness, we were secretly a little dazed as we came among men. The small city gleamed pleasantly amid its pines, and cast a picture on the wave. Here were the triple verandas and red roofs of the hotel ; yonder the blue and white business “ blocks ; ” the square belfry and green blinds of the Methodist church rose among its liveoaks, and the Baptist church uplifted a horn ; here were cottages, and even houses; there the new bank, painted in three colors, and some buildings of brick. Pleasure-boats put forth with a freight of muslined femininity; people went to and fro, in a holiday mood, on the verandas ; a train drew up at the station, and a locomotive bound for far cities panted on the rails. We entered these stirring scenes with a certain thrill and a wary self-command, as of rustics minded not to stare too curiously. There were lists of supplies to be filled ; perhaps a hardware and a dry-goods store to be nonchalantly visited, as if it were quite an every-day thing to be at leisure and make purchases. And when these things were done, there were the newly distributed mails, with precious letters. Lastly came the strange experience of a hotel dinner, served luxuriously in little oval dishes that some one else washed. When this was eaten, we commonly lingered on the hotel piazzas with fellow farmers, gathered from about the lake, and voluble upon drought, freightcharges, and mutilated returns. Or there might be a sojourning beauty or two, curious about frontier ways, and, Desdemona-like, willing to listen sympathetically to a tale of tanned Othellos.
The sinking sun roused from these dalliances: the Egret’s sail was hoisted to the breeze, and her stem once more pointed for the wilds. There was a strange delightfulness in these twilight cruises, a sense of satisfied home-returning oddly at variance with the departure from comfortable meals and the neighborhood of men. The city sank away in a mellow dusk, its lights sparkling out here and there ; the bearded cypress on the halfway point grew, on the darkening waste ; the little Egret bounded sanguinely over the waves ; and by and by, lo ! yonder — the far pale curve of the farm beach, and Rufus’s lantern twinkling like a star !
Thus far the outlook had been pleasantly auroral, but it now began to change. Little by little, in our three laborious seasons, we had learned to encounter the difficulties of our undertaking, and we fancied that we knew them all. The farm had raised increasing harvests of vegetables, and it now began to raise a little thrifty livestock : cattle ranging the grass-land ; swine fattening on the crop waste; and tow-haired children of the hands, indirectly sprung from the returns. These things had been fought for and wrung from a raw soil and a climate which was an ambush of surprises. The farm had also begun to yield a crop of expectations, and it seemed as if these were to be harvested. To recur to the metaphor I have used, the aspects appeared to be those of a slow sunrise, bound to be accompanied with a little gold at last. But it was really a sunset time, and the prospect was brightening only to darken the more blankly.
When we gathered for the fourth season, we found the lake overbrimmed and rippling far inland. The unsubmerged fallows were too soft for the foot; even the sandier earths were sodden with long rains. The wet season had been phenomenal, and it was still at its height a month after it commonly closed. There was nothing for it but to sow seeds for transplants, and trust that there might by and by be dry land to receive them.
The rain paused, the lake fell, the fields here and there upbore the plough, and we hastened to make up for lost weeks. The rain paused till we had planted large tracts. Then it fell upon our work, and undid it. It held off again, and again we planted ; and once more it fell upon us, like a lurking cat upon mice. Writing after the event, I should seem to tell only of fatuities if I were to say how often we replanted, and how often we were redeluged. We seized upon each fair day, we contested every inch, as it were, of the season and the farm, till the lake had risen from the lowland to the upland, and the last tilled acre was expunged. The normal rainy season is of about four months’ length ; the heavy rains of this year lasted for eight months. When it was too late to plant for market, the skies cleared and the lake withdrew with our costly flotsams.
Certain weeks of this flood-time were curiously pleasant. After the agony of the struggle there came a truce. The season was lost, the farm-hands were dispersed, and our hopes and cares were ended for a time. We lay on our arms and looked indifferently on the victorious waters. Farley sat all day before an easel in the still lakeside chamber, I thumbed old classics by a crackling hearth, and the rains tinkled on the roof. By turns, we went down to light the kitchen fire and tend the kettle and the skillets. We grumbled at these tasks, yet we rather enjoyed the making of meals. When the table was cleared, we washed the dishes sociably, in a little red kitchen like a ship’s galley. Afterward, Farley mounted the latticed stair, and I paced the veranda, above the flood, as Noah may have paced the Ark’s quarter-deck. The scene had a primeval quality that fits the parallel. The cottage lawn, indeed, was mown and set with orangetrees, but all beyond was the immemorial wilderness of the Seminoles. Their arrow-heads lay thick in the beach sand, — some sharp as if just chipped for the shaft, others broken as they may have rebounded from Spanish corselets. The barky pillars of the pines loomed sparsely from the near palmettos, and thickened to a blue curtain in the distance. Gray mosses hung from their sombre needles, and dripped with the showers or flaunted in the wind-gusts. Thickets of fantastic palms broke the gray stretch of the lake. Except for the farmbuildings to the north, and the lawn, there was no hint of man in the wide prospect,— only an aboriginal solitude of woods and water.
But now and then a rifle-shot cracked across the lake; or a cowboy from the saloons whooped in the forest, and discharged the chambers of his revolver, with a brisk, humanizing effect. If the wind were right, it brought us, too, in the mid-morning and the dusk, a far-away thunder of trains and clarion blasts from the northern express. And often the clouds would lift for a few hours, the leaden water would turn to silver, and the brooding pines and palmettos kindled with colors.
The fifth season opened with dry soil in all parts of the farm. We had received a blow between the eyes, and we were still somewhat staggered ; but that, clearly, was a reason for new efforts. The crops were sown and planted ; they came up well ; the lake drew far out upon its sands. We ceased to tremble at a cloud, and presently began to wish for one with water in it. Sometimes the sky thickened, and a few drops speckled the dust; but soon the sun was out again, and the soil lay unslaked. The weeks went by, and no rain fell but an occasional niggard sprinkle ; the months passed without any wetting of the parched fields. The crops on the high land took autumnal tints, and withered ; the crops on the lower land dried away ; the crops on the lowest land still grew. It seemed that we might yet make half a harvest. But far on in March, when the thermometer had long been in the eighties, the wind whipped suddenly into the north, and the air cooled fifty degrees in a night.
We were in the field, perspiring in linens, when the change came, with an abrupt overcasting of the sky. A whiff like the breath from a glacier struck us, the wind blew each moment keener, and before we fairly saw how it was our teeth were chattering. It was well-nigh unbelievable ; but presently there could be no doubt that a January norther was upon us, two months out of season. When we realized this, we set all hands at work to earth over the half-grown potato vines. Only a few hours of the day were left, but the men worked desperately with hoes and ploughs through the bleak twilight, and much was done. But not all. When we came out, shivering, in the first daybreak, we saw that our short harvest was to be lamentably shortened.
We perceived now, at last, how it was with us : we were not farming, but gambling with the elements. The climate had been merely toying with us, a trumpcard of spring frosts lying in its sleeve. It had dealt with our venture as it dealt, on a great scale, with the ill-fated orange plantations. And this was a refinement of its crft: the local temperature kept a certain proportion with the latitude. By the record figures the late frosts were mild enough, but they blighted as ruthlessly as frosts further to the north, for they fell in the midst of hotter days and upon tenderer growths. The thermometer itself had been a deceit.
The fortunes of the region were now rapidly shifting. The tide of settlement which brought us in had risen a little higher, and then gradually ebbed. One by one the farms about the lake had been abandoned, and the wide water, that used to be flecked with sails on blue days, was grown desolate. The Egret’s weathered canvas winged it almost alone. And soon this, too, was gone.