William Howells.

A Confession of St. Augustine

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That famous orange orchard which we must not leave behind yet, is admirable for the avenues first of palms, and then of live-oaks which form its approach; the oaks stretch their writhing limbs across the driveway, and put a still weirder disposition on from their hearsing with long plumes of Spanish moss, in perhaps the least endearing appeal of nature to human nature. Half an acre from the stooping trunks the branches reach far out as in some strife of “dragons of the prime,” hairy with the hideous gray of the parasite, which waves funerally in the air. It is said to be finally the death of the tree, but there is here and there one which escapes its throttling grip, and especially we knew one which in a neglected garden spread itself abroad over half an acre of ground. Always it was a pleasure to drive by that vast oak, as it was a pleasure to drive under the oaks which border the long Avenue San Marco on the way to the road Round the Horn. Last year it seemed to have been ravaged by some sort of insect, but it was putting out its gray-green leaves anew, with the water-oak in young verdure bulking freshly and refreshingly beside it.

The drive Round the Horn is the most characteristic of the drives about St. Augustine, and is more comprehensive of the general interest than any other. The bridge which you presently cross gives one of the fairest prospects of the city, with its Andalusian towers and roofs, and then you are on the way back to them, by a shell road winding through the reaches and expanses of palmetto scrub, among the stems of the rather spindling pines. The scrub is the wonder and the terror of the local landscape, and, so far as I know, the whole Floridian landscape. Of all the vegetable enemies of man it seems the most inexorable. You may cut it, or burn its fans down to the roots; it bides its time, and after a brief season of sparse grass, which the cows eat in default of other herbage, the scrub renews its hold upon the nether regions, and must be dug up, fiber by fiber, before the meager soil can be freed from it for such crops as will grow in it. More crops will grow in what looks like mere sand than you would imagine, or the Northern farmer or gardener could hope to harvest from it. If you transplant the young trees from among the scrub, they willingly flourish, when encouraged with a little water, into columnar palmettoes, such as make the promise of a noble avenue on the drive to the beautiful woodland called Lewis’s Point, after a philanthropist whose public and private beneficences at St. Augustine form a Tolstoyan romance. But this is not the place to tell the story which, as your colored driver murmurs it, lends its poetry to your course through the winding ways of the natural park, with their outlooks upon the still waters of the bays and bayous around. You need not otherwise believe all that your driver says, especially all he says of the serpents which frequent these groves and climb the vines of the scuppernong to share its fruit with the colored boys competing for the grapes.

Like these boys, the snake which loves the fruit most is black, and sometimes in the imagination of the driver is of as lofty reach as the vine itself.

Candor obliges me to say that although we saw scuppernong vines in abundance, we never saw any snakes on them, black or of any other color; but once in driving home from the Point in the cool of a very cool evening we saw a captive rattlesnake held in leash by the man who had caught it. The loathly worm was quite torpid from the cold, and lay a gray, clayey length that showed the whole pattern of its checkered design, with its rattles a full yard away from its deadly fangs. We did not stay to ask how or where it had been taken, but hurried by through the early dusk which the Southern twilight had suddenly lapsed into after our visit to the vineyard where a German family makes a “fine, fruity old port” from the berries of the scuppernong. These grow, anomalously enough, the size of small plums, in loose clusters of three or four, and are of the flavor of our Concord grapes, but do not transport so well as the wine, and probably would not ripen in the North. The name had always a charm for me from its musical enumeration in that pleasant rhyme of Longfellow’s renowning our Catawba beyond all other native, and some alien vintages; and I now satisfied my wish to see the scuppernong growing on some spreading trellises which it roofed. But it has never the soft insinuation of vines better known to literature, and before the leaves come to hide them in the spring, it is covered with spiky twigs instead of the delicate, clinging tendrils of other grapes. The spreading trellises here were of no great spread, and were presently lost in an orchard of oranges and other fruit trees, all ordered with a neatness very alien to the sloven farming of the country about, but much in keeping with the young Bavarian sisters, with their long braids and smooth masses of dark hair, who came out to show us the place. They came out of a new-built house of Northern pattern – first to save us from the misgivings of their dogs; and last – their widowed mother and older sister being in town – the capable little women led us to the barn where the bottles and barrels of the scuppernong were stored. When I proposed to buy a bottle of the wine, they wished me to taste a glass of it that I might test its quality; and they even allowed our colored driver (a very mildly coffee-colored driver) to join in the test, so that he was able to add his voice in favor of the vintage from a whole tumblerful.

The drive from the farm through the forest solitude back to the highway was haunted by the sad or savage black faces starting up before us as in the woodland road, and was not cheered by the lamps in the windows of the moldering hamlet of Moultrie. Ruin seemed to have grown upon the place since we had seen it an hour before, and a decay at once eerie and ramshackle invested the forsaken villa on rising ground beyond the estuary where the little oysters mustered their serried ranks in the ebb-tide of the muddy flats. This villa could never have been very impressive itself, but the massive stone posts of the gateways approaching it were of even undue grandeur; otherwise the unpainted wood of the local architecture, which had never known dignity nor beauty, was of that repulsive forlornness which seems characteristic of the Southern farm or village house in its decay. Yet if the ground has once been cleared of all that man has builded for the shelter of his love or pride, there is sometimes a charm in the utter effacement. One day of another year another driver carried us by a place where he said he used to bring a lady from the North whose family home it had once been, and where, beyond the squalor of a negro suburb, an opening in the scrub-pine and palmetto stretched a wilding lawn under gray live-oaks and shining magnolias growing apart from one another as if from intention rather than by accident. It was so fit a place for the mansion which had once stood there in the stately keeping of the slave-holding past that one must look twice to make sure that the vanished home was not haunting the scene. The Northern lady who frequented it was only far off akin to those who had once dwelt there, and it did not seem that her visits were the effect of family piety; but she came and came as long as she remained in St. Augustine, and as we should have come if we had remained in reach of the beautiful, wistful spot.

As for the allure of St. Augustine itself, it was largely that of all small cities not densely built over their area, and it kept the tradition of a country town in dooryards with flowers, and back yards with homely vegetables, and here and there a vacant lot where the sweet corn and the pea vines flourished, not remote from the centers of commerce and fashion which, as I have said, do not intermit their business or pleasure on Sundays. I liked driving in the outlying streets which had once hoped to be avenues, but when Palm Beach and Miami had taken the hope of all-winter resort from St. Augustine had given it up (not in desperation so much as in resignation) and become gently weed-grown and grass-grown roadways. Where the tops of the wayside oaks or cedars arched together overhead, they were of a gloom that was very pleasant, and where the colonnading and arcading ceased, it was still a pensive pleasure to find oneself passing the simple gardens and lawns, not too wild-grown, of houses that had quite ceased trying to be the winter homes of well-to-do Northern invalids, and were now either for sale outright, or were putting off the inevitable hour by offering furnished rooms to let. Every point of the winning city had its moment of charm, and I did not yield a fonder allegiance to the great Ponce de Leon when that hostelry gathered a rich sunset in its clustering palms, and lifted its roofs and towers above them in the lingering afterglow, than to the Plaza of a sunny morning when my home-towners ranged themselves with their home-papers on the benching in the checkered shade, or then, when the full moon sailed above the campanile of the cathedral, and the alligator dreamed in his fountain, and the old Spanish market-house tried to remember which of the home-towners it was that beat at checkers during the long games of the forenoon. It was fine also when the swift twilight fled before the dusk over the waters that stretched between St. Augustine and St. Anastasia; but no finer than other divisions of the day at other places. If I were driven to choose, I should favor a mild Sunday forenoon on the road crossing from farther St. George Street over the water-gate that keeps the estuary of Maria Sanchez full, independently of the changing tide. It is then a smooth, motionless mirror, where the distant towers and roofs of the city glass themselves with a certain delicate beauty of line and color, and let you imagine them in whatever story of the city’s past you like. I myself like some idyllic passage of it not too weighted down with fact, and not above sympathy with such homely effects as the reedy pastures of the shore, and the rather shabby cows grazing there in the keeping of colored mothers past more active cares. If you are for a more romantic outlook, you are welcome to the long expanse of the southward savannah, fenced along the horizon by the shadowy walls of woodland. But I think we shall come together in our pleasure of the river’s name, called after whatever Spanish maid or matron Maria Sanchez might have been, and that we shall like it better, and find it the sweeter on our tongues for being her surname as well as her Christian name.

Matron or maid, Se?ora or Se?orita, it would not be more endearing if it were of the oldest Spanish derivation than if it were of that Minorcan origin which lends to the history of St. Augustine the pathos of a people cruelly injured. The children of this people have multiplied and prospered in the friendly air of the place for more than a hundred years, now, since an alien governor rescued them from a wrong which an alien oppressor had done them. Under their name and with them many poor Greeks and Italians were lured from Minorca when the islanders were brought to Florida by the Englishman who promised them home and country in his employ, and after he had got them to his lands practically enslaved them. They seem to have been something like our colonial Redemptioners in the terms of their emigration, but when they found themselves doomed lifelong to work out the price of their transit, in no hope of rescue from their tyrant till one of them who had heard of English law stole away to St. Augustine, and asked the English governor if they could be held against their will, without land or wages; and the governor answered, with what roar of disclaimer the reader chooses to imagine. Certainly not! Then their Moses went back to them, and led them up out of their bondage at New Smyrna to St. Augustine and left their English tyrant with the machinery of his indigo farms to rust and ruin. Ever since they have been an admirably industrious element in their city of refuge, and honored for their virtues. But it is said that they keep to themselves away from their kind neighbors, irreparably wounded in their pride by the conditions of their past sufferings. For my own part I would like to believe that all that beauty and grace which I liked to attribute to the blood of the race dominant in the city for three hundred years, had come down to our day through these deeply wronged Minorcans; and I would not have the shadow of their tragedy rest, however lightly, upon the sunny picture of St. Augustine which remains in my remembrance. Other shadows there were, as there are in all the memories of life. Sometimes the butcher would not send home the meat in time, or the sort of meat that was ordered; sometimes the grocer would not send anything at any time, until he was prodded over the telephone; but in the end we did not starve, and meanwhile we continued in the hope that the boys carrying baskets before them on their bicycles were coming to us with them.

Otherwise our days went by in a summer succession the whole winter through, but if now and then a day was unseasonably wintry, we justly blamed our native North for it. I have tried, faithfully if not successfully, to give some notion of the place and its resources for the exile who has merely come away to escape care, and I hope I have not exaggerated them. I have confessed that the drives were not so many as I could wish, but the pleasant walks were more than I could take, and our excursions in suburb or beyond always offered some interesting spectacle or experience. There would be a house, left unoccupied by its owner for the winter, which we would occupy for the moment at a merely nominal rent; there was a certain ship’s carpenter whom we liked to see building a small yacht in his back yard, remote from any of the surrounding waters; and in a garden beside a house not otherwise memorable there was the passion of a half-grown kitten for a hen which, as the cat rubbed against the scandalized and indignant fowl, afforded a spectacle of unrequited affection that might well have been studied for a painting on the cover of a popular magazine; there were wide, wilding spaces which the prosperity of former years had meant for house-lots, and there were others where houses had once stood, and then fallen away, leaving flowery tangles of bushes and briers behind them. But the great charm of the town was in the town itself, and chiefly characteristic of it was our own St. George Street, which, whether it followed the Maria Sanchez away in cottages or bungalows of divers ideals to the border of the far-reaching southward savannah, or led northward beyond the Plaza, was somehow more Old World in effect than other thoroughfares of the town. There were not merely the shops where everything you wanted or did not want was offered you, but there was here and there a Spanish house, sometimes tottering with age, but in one instance at least keeping its ancient state of coquina walls flush with the street and with a stretch of garden beside it, and on the street beyond it the appealing ruin of like houses left by the last fire. Somewhat early in the season, the old thoroughfare entered into a generous commercial rivalry with King Street, and equipped itself with colored electric lamps strung overhead in gay strands from side to side. By night or by day, with its little shops and its cracking walls, and people walking up and down its middle among the vehicles, it was very, very South-European. But it had places where you could hardly keep from buying the latest magazines, or deny the claim of your home-paper wherever your home was in the Middle West. Promptly, twenty-four hours late, there were not only the New York papers, but the Chicago, the Cleveland, the Cincinnati papers, with news which had kept quite fresh on the long way south. But, above all, St. George Street was the directest way to the old fort San Marco, and to the city gates which remain another monument ol the Spanish will to be fair as well as strong. Our great architect McKim could not find a nobler suggestion for his Harvard gates than these gave, and one who goes to Cambridge may imagine from them the chief ornament of St. Augustine. They are indeed only the pillars of the gates, with a bit of the ancient wall beside each, and how the fortification was continued from them I never could quite realize, or whether in palmetto logs or coquina walls. The old embankment which once stretched away on either side was long ago leveled with the plain, but you can still imagine anything you like of it. You cannot imagine too much of St. Augustine anywhere within its vanished walls, or in the characteristic landscape, where it lies a vision of unique appeal in our commonplace American world.


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