William Howells.

A Confession of St. Augustine

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These little sympathetic lanes continue to King Street, but seldom cross it. There at the end of the Plaza, where the old Spanish market-house consents to the modern legend of having been a slave-mart, other kind avenues take up the tale and tell it, mostly in the terms of the gentle Charlotte Street, till they bring you almost suddenly upon the great fortress of San Marco set impregnable across your path. There, if it could have spoken, San Marco might well have forbidden the ravage of the flames which have consumed large spaces of the Spanish houses on the bay-front, and left only the crumbling coquina walls and arches and the scorched palmettoes to attest the tragedy of their destruction; but it is not till you pass San Marco that you come upon the means of enforcing such a mandate – not till you come in fact to the city water-works where the splendid up-gush from the deeply subterranean springs diffuses their odor through the air. Many people – perhaps most – do not like this odor, and few if any like the taste of the water, unless they have been inured to the offensive virtues of the ferruginous and sulphurous springs of Germany. It is not healing like these, but physicians say you may safely drink it if you can stand it; and to the right, before you reach the water-works, you may visit the Fountain of Youth which it seems an error to suppose Ponce de Leon did not discover when he came to Florida in 1513, for he left the fountain behind him there with the date in a pattern of stone near the source. In fact he left two Fountains of Youth at St. Augustine, but the one which was to the westward of the actual fountain was closed by the Board of Health as unhygienic. For a reasonable sum, however, you may drink of the remaining spring, and if it does not rejuvenate you it will scarcely disappoint you, unless you have expected the impossible of it, or even the credible. This remaining Fountain of Youth may well be left behind in the realm of fancy, and the atmosphere of fable which so richly invests it, for a return to the great fortress which holds down more history than any other such edifice on our continent. Not even the citadel at Quebec outrivals it for the events which have elapsed in its time, for it has stood invulnerable during the two hundred and fifty years since its foundations were powerfully laid beside the wave that washes its base.



THOUGH it was in 1513 that Ponce de Leon came sailing from Puerto Rico to find the waters of youth, it was not till 1565 that the terrible, the cruel (yet no more responsibly cruel or terrible than a tiger) Pedro Menendez de Aviles came in sight of those sands, and fell upon the weak-minded, fever-wasted Huguenots whom he found in possession and captured and slaughtered these heretics, and put Spain and God in keeping of their own again. The tale need hardly be repeated here; once for all the pious, pitiless Pedro has told it for himself to his king, the pious, pitiless Philip, in a letter found among the colonial archives at Seville and included among other curious documents in The Unknown History of Our Country, as it is entitled by the lady of St.

Augustine who compiled it. The Lutherans, as Menendez, like all the Spaniards of his time, called the Huguenots, were by the laws and usage of the time illegally there, and it was his duty as a loyal subject and a good Christian to destroy them. He was much concerned besides in saving the souls of the savages from these Lutherans who had the gift of insinuating affection for themselves among the Indians along with their heretical instruction.

There is something wonderful in the moral security of the murderer’s account of his crime, which was not a private or personal murder so much as a political act duly avenged on the Spaniards by the French, when their turn came. For the present the French were miserably officered; they were spent by hunger and sickness; the winds and waves were leagued with the Spaniards against them; and they gave themselves up to Menendez, as he had fairly stipulated, without any promise of mercy. Then he took them out from their comrades’ sight by tens till he had put them all to death, except a few who proved to be of the true faith just in time, and other few who were such excellent artificers that their skill could not be spared by the captors who spared their lives. There is a touch in the fashion of their taking off by Menendez worthy of an hidalgo who was born in Granada and who knew how a gentleman should behave in such a matter. He had their hands bound, and led them aside, and then, to spare their feelings, he had them stabbed in the back.

There was bloodshed of this sort or that pretty well everywhere along these white sands, but death had so long died out of the dead that one day when we motored down Anastasia Island to a point where there had been a battle, we lunched on the table stretched under the trees of a pleasant farm, and used a half-petrified skull to keep down our Japanese paper table-spread without molestation from its terrible memories. It does not sound very pleasant, but we were no more aware of the petrifaction’s human quality than it was of ours, and in the farm-yard near by the peach-trees kept on with their leisurely blossoming as if there had never been slaughter of French or Spaniards in the shade where we ate our sandwiches with the sweet, small oysters from the shore, and drained our thermos-bottles of their coffee. In fact, after the Spaniards were with comparatively little wanton bloodshed secure in their hold of Florida, life at St. Augustine went on in the paternal terms which the obedient children of their fatherly kings found kindly enough. During those three hundred years, one Philip followed another from the Second till the Fourth, and St. Augustine drowsed under their rule till some successor of them ceded it to the British in exchange for Cuba, which the British had somehow (it does not matter how) come by. Meanwhile, as the papers from the Sevillian archives testify, the bond between the prince and his far-off subjects was close if not tender. When any of them was in trouble he wrote to the king; a priest who fancied himself wronged in his duties or privileges wrote; the families of old soldiers wrote, dunning for their pensions; any one who had a grievance against any other, or a pull of his own, wrote to the king. Sometimes the king wrote back, or seemed to write, for perhaps he did not personally read all those letters. When, in due course, his faithful lieges began to build him that beautiful fort of San Marco they wrote so pressingly and constantly for money that the kings made its cost their joke. One Philip said he thought they must have now got it so high that he ought to see its bastions from Madrid; another asked if they were making its curtains of solid silver.

By that time, from one cause or another, the royal funds had begun to run low; the English buccaneers had long since learned to tap them at their sources in the galleons bringing the gold and silver ingots up the Spanish Main from South America. When the authorities of St. Augustine had got the lofty bastions of San Marco finally up and the solid-silver curtains down, General Oglethorpe, who had meanwhile settled Georgia, marched a force of Englishmen through the forests and morasses to Anastasia and sat down before the stronghold, and began to bombard it. But in their season there are clouds of mosquitoes and myriads of sand-flies in that island and they bit his sick and homesick soldiers fearfully. Still he held on, and he might have reduced the stronghold and the starving population of three thousand civilian refugees within its walls if one day a relief of Spanish ships had not come sailing up from Havana. Then the British general struck his tents and led his bitten and baffled forces home through the forests and morasses.

San Marco has never been attacked since, for when our revolution broke out, Florida did not join the other colonies in their revolt against the British, who remained peaceably enough in possession till they ceded the province back to Spain. Then the old city resumed its slumbers in her keeping, till Spain in her turn ceded Florida, with its Seminole War, to the United States, when the name of the fort was changed, fatuously enough, from San Marco to Fort Marion, in honor of a hero whose side Florida had not taken in our revolt. It is devoted now mainly to rousing and allaying the curiosity of the swarming tourists who haunt its medieval fastnesses, and for the first time in their lives realize what a past they had no part in was like. In this way it serves the best possible use, but otherwise it is employed as the scene of rehearsals for the more populous events of the picture-plays. On a single occasion last year a company of three hundred combatants – white and black, men, women, and children, hired overnight for the purpose – thronged the noble place and repelled each other in an invasion by the Japanese, with a constant explosion of old-fashioned musketry which sounded like the detonations of the unmuffled motors of a fleet of such boats as infest all our inland or coastwise waters. These, no longer in the force of former years, make themselves heard over the still waters of the bay at St. Augustine any especially fine evening, when they madden the echoes with their infernal racketing. No longer as in their former years, I say, but they are still in such force as to keep frightened away the sail-boats which used to flock there, but now linger only in a sad two or three. Otherwise the bay is not crowded with any sort of craft: a few yachts of houseboat model; the little steamers which ply between St. Augustine and Daytona, the fishing craft which bring the inexhaustible oysters and their multifarious finny kindred to the excellent fish-market; and, on stated days, the great, swelling stern-wheel steamboat arriving from Jacksonville as from the Western rivers of sixty years ago formed the pleasure and business of the port; though I must not forget the two gasolene packets running to the North beaches, at hours which it took them the whole of January to ascertain and specify.

Otherwise the port offered a good reproduction of the two centuries of calm which it must have enjoyed during the Spanish rule; to be sure there was now the rattling of the trolley-car over the extortionate toll-bridge to the island which could not have been heard then, or even imagined. I like to fancy that time as one of entire peacefulness for all not of the New Religion who after the time of the devout Menendez are scarcely imaginable there. The spirit of the time lingers yet in a few half-dozen old coquina houses standing flush upon the streets. One of them stood next to our own, covered, roof and wall, with ivy and with roses and yellow bignonia flowers, where Prince Murat, the Bonapartist heir of the Neapolitan throne, lived and died in a long, unmolested exile. We found it a charmingly simple interior, much like that of the little house so lately owned and occupied by a gentle, elderly Spanish lady who received us like friends upon fit introduction, but had to keep her street door locked against the tourists apt to make themselves at home by walking in without ceremony. The door was overhung by a true Spanish balcony, and behind the house reposed an old garden of trees and flowers and vegetables, with the only staircase of the house climbing the outer wall from it. The gentle lady was proud of the age of her house, which she held as great as that of the oldest house in St. Augustine in the same street, or even greater. There is a rivalry between oldest houses in St. Augustine, but after making friends with her we would admit no competition. We always looked for her in the quaint garden as we passed, and we were always hoping to go into it again, when one day suddenly, as such things seem to come to one in St. Augustine, we heard that she was dead of pneumonia. By chance also we saw her funeral starting from the cathedral, and then, keeping our own course, we fell in behind the sad train by another chance, and followed till it left us to keep its way to the arid and sandy new cemetery of her church.

The old Spanish cemetery, now disused, lies far away on the edge of the marshes to the northwest, where it was sweet one morning to find it basking in the sun, under its wilding cedars, in the keeping of the cows which made it their pasturage. When I wandered a little way among its forgotten and neglected graves, I found no name Spanisher than Burns on one of the stones. There might have been Spanisher names; I only say I did not happen on them then, though later, following the wandering cowpaths, I did find such a name as, say, Lopez. But at the worst the old Spanish cemetery is not so all misnamed as the old Huguenot burial-ground, where no Huguenot was ever buried, and where you cannot read a solitary name of French accent or denomination. The Old Religion, as distinguished from the New Religion which the Huguenots professed, is the faith which now perhaps not unfitly prevails in St. Augustine, but there is a great variety in the Protestant faiths, let alone that difference of white and black which is of such marked emphasis that I do not suppose any one could get to heaven from a church where he was not properly segregated. The colored churches, divided from the white, are again divided by such a nice distinction, for example, as Methodist Episcopal and African Methodist Episcopal. Many of the colored people, however, are broadly Roman Catholic, but they also have their own churches apart from the white.

When the king of Spain ceded Florida to the king of England, late in the eighteenth century, the Spanish inhabitants of St. Augustine largely, if not mostly, went away to Cuba, but their religion continued in the primacy which it still enjoys. The cathedral fronting the Plaza from the north is not the cathedral of former days, but a dignified reproduction of the cathedral devoured by the flames which in St. Augustine seem to have a peculiar appetite for the older edifices. One steps into it from the twentieth century and finds oneself in the serious silence which is the same in all the temples of that faith, and which one might almost persuade oneself was a religious emotion and not the esthetic impression it really is. It makes one wish for the moment that one were of the Old Religion, and this was the effect with me when I woke in the morning and heard the nuns’ sweet voices rising in their matins over the gardens of the girls’ school across the way from us. It was a privilege to dwell in the sound and sight of that place, and one felt something of an unmerited consecration from it; when one met two of those kind sisters, who always came and went in twos, one gladly stepped from the narrow footway of St. George Street, and gave way to them with a sense of unmerited blessing from the sight of them. The figure of St. Joseph looked down, at first glance rather apparitionally, from an upper window across the flowers, and seemed to bless them in the benediction not withheld from the shrill hilarity of the girl children and the undergraduates romping at their noonday games in the open galleries. One night we went to a dramatic performance in the school given by a sisterhood of young people from the outside under the nuns’ auspices, with blameless dances and instructive mythological tableaux. When we would not wait for the play which was to follow these we were stayed by one of the girl pupils and entreated to remain; the play was going to be the best thing of the whole evening; and now I am sorry we did not remain.

Such spare incidents were the most salient events of our sojourn, which I could easily pretend was full of much more startling experiences. St. Augustine is indeed the setting of almost any most dramatic fact, as the companies of movie-players, rehearsing their pantomimes everywhere, so recurrently testified. No week passed without the encounter of these genial fellow-creatures dismounting from motors at this picturesque point or that, or delaying in them to darken an eye, or redden a lip or cheek, or pull a bodice into shape, before alighting to take part in the drama. I talk as if there were no men in these affairs, but there were plenty, preferably villains, like brigands or smugglers or savages, with consoling cowboys or American cavalrymen for the rescue of ladies in extremity. Seeing the films so much in formation, we naturally went a great deal to see them ultimated in the movie-theaters, where we found them nearly all bad. In this I do not suppose that they differed from the movie-drama elsewhere, or that they were more unfailingly worthless. They were less offensive as they were more romantic; when they tried to be realistic they illustrated the life of crime in the East, and of violence in the West. There was very little comedy, but one night, in the representation of a medieval action, an involuntary stroke of burlesque varied the poetry of the love interest when the mechanical piano, which had been set to the music of the tango, continued that deplorable strain while the funeral of a nun slowly paced through the garden of the convent to the chapel. The general vulgarity and worse seemed the more pity because the theaters were always well filled not only with prouder visitors from the great hotels, and the friendly roomers from everywhere, but with nice-looking townspeople, who had brought their children with them when they had not let them come alone.

The children seemed about at most hours of their parents’ waking, and, as in Italy and Spain, one saw little ones of tender age sharing their pleasures of the public places. Very small boys and girls played at night in the paths of the Plaza, or hung upon the railing of the alligator’s bath-tub, and admired his secular repose; now and then one fell asleep at its mother’s knee, and I thought the whole usage homelike and kindly, however not perfectly wise. It was at least part of the native life, which the tourist lite so much overran; and yet that tourist life was genial, too. It went and came in conversible enjoyment of the place, from its various lodgings and from the delicatessen shops where it inexpensively fed. As the season advanced it thickened upon the town, and the dwellers up and down the more convenient streets were adventurously besought to share their houses with the roomers. We ourselves were not exempt from their entreaties, and I do not yet quite know how we escaped having one mother in Israel for a paying guest; she sat down at her own suggestion to argue the matter with us, and I thought really she had much of the logic on her side. Possibly she prolonged her argument because she liked so much the rich glow from the mass of the live-oak logs burning on our hearth, and I did not blame her; rather do I blame myself, and shall always blame, for not asking in to that genial warmth the little frail old dame who arrived one cold day on our veranda to offer her pathetically humble stock of needles and pins for our purchase. I then thought it enough to buy a quarter’s worth of pins, and did not think, insensate that I was, to ask her indoors to warm herself at our fire. She was from Michigan, she said, and that Florida day must have been mockingly bitter to her. She faded into the afternoon chill, and left me, when I realized it, to suffer for my sin of omission with vain thoughts of pursuing her, and bringing her back and offering her tea and toast and whatever instant refreshments I could imagine.

While I am about owning this unavailing regret, I may as well remember how I one day bought a wagon-load of fat pine from a thin little old woman, who proved, on the testimony of our colored maid, a widow trying to work the bit of farm her husband’s death had left her, and whom I ought to have bought a load of fat pine from every day, but I did not think to order even another load, and so never saw her again. This also lies heavy on my soul, but I thank Heaven we bought all the tumblers of delicious guava jelly which a little neighbor girl offered us; and since we did this I wish she had seemed needier than she probably was. Not many people came to us with things to sell, but we soon began getting boxes of delicious strawberries from the farm-wife whom once we found working in her own field, and we never ceased buying them as long as they lasted. It was a quaint place, of wooden Gothic, holding its own against age, and charming the air with an effect of personal history. She led us over it, and invited us to tell any one who asked that it was to let furnished, as I now tell the reader. A lady not otherwise of our acquaintance accompanied us on her own incentive, as by mere force of habit, and said she always liked to visit that house, it was so picturesque.

Very little of the country life showed itself about the town, and when it did it was mostly colored; there was one white orange-farmer who came at first with his fruit, and then, on our question of the sweetness of his tangerines, promptly ceased to come. But there is a famous orange grove northward of the city where the tangerines are better, and you may be shown on a ladder plucking them from the tree, if you are of a mind to be so photographed. It is perhaps a little too conscious, but the orchard is not the less sincere for that, and you may see there the preparation which the orange-growers of northern Florida have provided against frost ever since the Great Freeze: pots and pans of combustibles, to make a heavy smudge and blanket the fruit against the inclemency of the skies. When the spring began to thicken in leaf and blossom upon our vernal world, the perfume of the orange flowers struck through the air a quarter of a mile off and involved us in its dense sweetness as we drove by on our often way “Round the Horn.” As is well known, the orange-trees are always flowering and fruiting together, but it may not be so well known that in St. Augustine they have infected the peach-trees with their habit. When we arrived the first week of January these were already trying the temperature with a bud here and there, and when we left in the second week of April, they were still tentatively blowing, as the New England country folks say, while their earlier ventures were rewarded with half-grown peaches. There was never that passionate flush of bloom which makes the peach-tree a thing of unspeakable beauty at the North; with the whole season from Christmas to Easter for its work, it felt no hurry here. It was so with most other fruits and flowers, especially with the nondescript fruit called a loquat in Bermuda, and in St. Augustine a Japanese plum, which began with no perceptible flower, and slowly yellowed and mellowed to the hand of predatory boyhood, though that might have had it for the asking in any dooryard. In the first days of April the mulberries were black enough to be eaten by the black boys. We made no account of roses and violets; but the poinsettia seemed to merit attention by keeping its fire-red spikes on till they dropped at the coming of spring, and left the bougainvillea to take up the tale.

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