THIS ranks as an excellent harbor, and looks like an open road stead. They say the hundred little flat islands, or keys, scattered all around keep off sea and storm. It is a pretty little tropical looking town, green all over with the cocoa-nut tree peculiar to this latitude, which has a short, thick trunk and tall, curved branches, which give it the semblance of a colossal feather-brush. The gardens have a bastard-looking orange tree in them, also, and tamarinds, Rose of Sharon, and oleanders, and something that looks like the century plant; and among the chaparral in the outskirts are thousands of gigantic prickly pears. The country is level, and is precious few inches above the sea. The formation is a rock that is white, looks like limestone, and is made of infinitesimal spheres like mustard seed compacted together. There is no soil upon it of any consequence, and so I do not see how they manage to grow anything. I didn't hear of any farms or vegetable gardens around. If a man wanted to start a farm there, he would have to bring one in a ship.
The town has houses enough in it to contain 3,000 people, but many of them are not occupied. The place has no commerce with the outside world. It don't raise anything and don't manufacture anything, and there seems to be no country back of it. And so I marched through and through the place, wondering how under heaven the people got their living. Finally it struck me, though after comparing notes with the Purser and the passengers: There is a great fortification there - Fort Taylor; a lighthouse or so, a great military barrack, and a Custom House. So they live off the Government; they keep numberless whiskey mills for the soldier trade, and they make something out of the weekly New Orleans and Havana steamer that touches there; and two or three times a year a stray ship wanders in there, and is a godsend. They scorch her!
Everybody was afraid the Health Officers would not allow us to land there with our cholera. Vain delusion! If a Health Officer were to stand between them and their livelihood in that way they would discharge him. They don't mind pestilences. They have their protection in the salubrity and singular healthfulness of their climate and situation. Their Doctor called our cholera "malignant diarrhea," and cheerfully let us land and spend $3,000 or $4,000. That will last them till fortune betrays another ship into their hands. For one hundred tons of coal and a few stores and medicines, our ship paid $2,011.20. Labor bill for putting the coal aboard was $205; it would have been $25 in New York. But the funniest thing was our restaurant experience. There were ten grown persons and two children at the dinner - (we furnished the wines ourselves); had weak soup, ham and eggs, coffee, an abominable stew of some kind or other that no man could eat, and a piece of custard pie all around. The bill was two dollars and a quarter apiece. We left good fare on the vessel to go and eat such a villainous mess as that. If they keep on in that way, a Key Wester will be a curiosity in Heaven here after.
I say nothing against Key West cigars, though. We laid in a heavy stock of them at four dollars a hundred - real Havana tobacco, and a better cigar than one can get in San Francisco at any price whatever. The tobacco is imported from Havana and then made into cigars by Spaniards. The duty on raw tobacco is only one-third of its market value, but the duty on the manufactured article is just three times its value. Hence they do not import cigars, but make them.
There are few handsome or elegant dwellings in the place - none, I might almost say. The dwellings of the "plebeians" are one-story frame cottages, with cheap colored paints hung on the walls, and neither mats nor carpets on the floors, and without glass windows - nothing but great heavy board shutters, solid like a door, and an inch thick. I think I saw a hundred such. I couldn't understand it. I meant to ask why they did not use glass windows, but I forgot it. I wish I knew.
At a little distance the town looks whitewashed and very pretty, but a closer inspection discovers that the whitewash is dingy, and that the whole concern hath about it a melancholy air of decay - Ben Bolt.
The negroes seemed to be concentrated in a single corner of the town, to leeward of the whites - so their fragrance is wasted on the desert air, and blows out to sea. As this fragrance blows straight out from near the lighthouse, it has its value - because the storm-tossed mariner with a delicate sense of smell could follow it in, in case the light chanced to go out. We met very few negroes in the town proper, which might have been because it was Sunday and a holiday.
The roadways in and about Key West are in triple paths, with belts of grass growing between - a circumstance which might have been suggestive of one-horse vehicles, only there were no horse-tracks in the middle path, and no wheel-tracks in the out side ones. We did see two cows and three horses, but that is not enough to justify me in saying there are thousands of them in Key West.
I attended Episcopal service, and they gauged me at a glance and gave me a back seat, as usual. And such style! and such fashion! Why, I might have imagined myself in Grace Cathedral, or some other metropolitan temple. Three hundred and fifty elegantly dressed ladies and children, and twenty-five men! The men were out selling little groceries and things to our army of rusty looking passengers from the San Francisco, no doubt. But where all that style came from was a mystery to me, in this decaying, windowless town, guiltless of commerce, agriculture, or manufactures. They must have been families of officers of the Custom House, and of the two great military establishments. Several of the gentlemen were unquestionably Southern bloods, though - slim, spruce, long-haired young fellows, in broadcloth, black kids, whalebone canes, ruffled shirts, and funny little cravats, an inch wide, made of flaming yellow silk ribbon.
Finally, two gentlemen began to hand around plates that seemed to have large pound-cakes on them. Everybody took a slice, but still the cakes grew no smaller. I wondered at that. However, when the cake-passers got toward my end of the church, I saw that those things were only imitation cakes with holes in their tops, and that the people were putting something in them instead of taking from them. I asked a boy what it was all about. He said those were contribution boxes. That had occurred to me a moment before, but I heard nothing rattle in them. You see, they were using postal currency, and it was our first experience in that line. We got better acquainted with it before the day was over, though. In a grocery where Brown bought something, they gave him a five-cent stamp in change, with a portrait of Gideon Welles on it, but he handed it back, with many regrets, and said he couldn't make any use of the grocery-man's picture, because he "didn't keep no photograft album."
Fort Taylor, an immensely strong fortification, sits in the edge of the sea and commands the entrance to the harbor, but we did not visit it - the walk would have been too great.
Well, we are really in "the States" again, but I cannot quite realize it yet.
AT SEA AGAIN
NEW YORK, January 12th.
We remained at Key West a day and night, and left on the morning of the 7th, and with a thinned complement of people; for twenty-one passengers had quitted the ship on account of the cholera - among them Isaac, who had latterly so fallen below all esteem or even recognition, that he had been going pretty much in a gang by himself ever since we left Greytown; and among them, also, went the man with the cholera scrap book, who wanted to pay the Captain $100 to insure his not being buried at sea if he died.
But the ship had regained her ancient cheerfulness as by magic. Of the eighteen who were sick when we landed, eleven were already well again, and all the fright about the disease was gone - went with the twenty-one. The dismal spell was removed, and it was really jolly at breakfast that morning - laughter rang out clear and hearty everywhere. They even got to chaffing each other about the scare, and telling extravagant stories on each other about things done under the influence of fear. They accused Kingdom of being scared, but he denied it - said he had never been scared since he loaded the old Queen Anne's musket for his father once. And he told the
LEGEND OF THE MUSKET
"You see, the old man was trying to learn me to shoot blackbirds and beasts that tore up the young corn and such things, so that I could be of some use about the farm, because I wasn't big enough to do much. My gun was a little single-barrel shot gun, and the old man carried an old Queen Anne's musket that weighed a ton and made a report like a thunderclap, and kicked like a mule. The old man wanted me to shoot the old musket sometimes, but I was afraid. One day, though, I got her down and thought I'd try her one riffle, anyhow, and so I took her to the hired man and asked him how to load her, because the old man was out in the fields. Hiram said, 'Do you see them marks on the stock - an X and a V on each side of a Queen's crown? - well, that means 10 balls and 5 slugs - that's her load. "But how much powder?' 'Oh,' he says, 'it don't matter; put in three or four handfuls.' So I loaded her up that way, and it was an awful charge - I had sense enough to know that - and started out. I levelled her on a good many blackbirds, but every time I went to pull the trigger I shut my eyes and weakened: I was afraid of her kick. Towards sundown I fetched up at the house, and there was the old man resting himself on the porch.
" 'Been out hunting, have ye?'
" 'Yes, sir,' says I. "
" 'What did you kill?'
" 'Didn't kill anything, sir - didn't shoot her off - I was afraid she'd kick.' [ I know'd d-----d well she would.]
" 'Gimme the gun!' the old man says, mad as sin.
"And he took aim at a sapling on the other side of the road, and I began to drop back out of danger. And the next minute I heard an earthquake and see the Queen Anne whirling end over-end in the air, and the old man spinning around on one heel, with one leg up and both hands on his jaw, and the bark flying from that sapling like there was a hail-storm! The old man's shoulder was set back four inches, and his jaw turned black and blue, and he had to lay up for three days. Cholera, nor nothing else, can ever scare me the way I was scared that time."
THE TALE OF THE "BIRD OF A NEW SPECIE"
That reminds me of another of Kingdom's experiments as a boy. He says:
"One day when me and my brother were out in the woods, he shot a chicken-hawk and a crow, and while we were lolling in the shade under a tree, he pulled the tails out of the birds and then fooling around and talking, he finally built the crow's tail into the chicken-hawk's transom. When we saw what a neat job it was, we thought we would keep it. When we got home we were late for supper, and we just dropped it on the porch and rushed in. We had a sort of sneaking hope that the old man and our uncle would get bit with it anyway, because they were always pattering over geology or natural history, or something they didn't know anything about. While we were at supper, they came along and found the bird, and we heard them discussing it and talking all sorts of astonishment. Directly the old man came in - had the bird by the leg and says:
" 'Boys, where'd you get this?'
" 'Shot him in the woods, sir.'
"'Did you ever come across any more birds like this around here?'
" 'No, sir - this is the first one.'
" 'Boys, do you know what you've done? You've discovered something that'll make ye known everywheres. This bird's of a new specie.'
"And then he walked out, and we heard him and uncle conclude that they'd label it with their names and send it to Professor Hagenbaum, at Albany. Pretty soon, though, the old man took hold of the tail and it pulled out, and we heard both of them swear a little. When we came out, the bird was laying on one side of the fence and the tail on the other. We didn't dare to laugh nor to let on about overhearing their talk either. But about a month after this there came along the rattiest specimen of a boy you ever saw, and wanted to stop with us. He was all rags and tatters, and tired out with running of I from his master some where. His shirt was hanging at half-mast through his trowsers, and two-thirds of the tail of it was a piece of blue flannel that had been sewed on. While the poor devil was eating his dinner, uncle and the old man were studying up what they'd better do with him. And finally they said, by George, they didn't know what to do with him. Just then the boy rose up and swung his colors into view, and brother Bob says:
" 'Father, you might send him to Professor Hagenbaum, at Albany!'
"It was the first the old man knew we'd overheard the bird-talk, and so he whaled us both. He says, 'I'll learn you to play jokes on your old father !"
THE GULF STREAM
I go back to my log again:
"JANUARY 8th - Man named Belmayne died to-day of dropsy, and was buried at sea.
"The temperature of the Gulf Stream here (they try it every two hours for the information of the Navy Department) is 76 degrees, atmosphere 72 degrees. We are comfortable enough now, while we are in this fluid stove, but when we leave it at Cape Hatteras it will be terribly cold. The speed of the Stream varies from one third of a mile to three and one-half miles an hour. We have been making 210 to 220 miles a day heretofore, but in this current we can turn off 250, 260 and 275 miles.
"The ship has beautiful charts, compiled by Lieut. Maury, which are crammed with shoals, currents, lights, buoys, soundings, and winds, and calms and storms - black figures for soundings, and bright spots for beacons, and so on, and an interminable tangle, like a spider's web, of red lines denoting the tracks of hundreds of ships whose logs were sent to Maury - everything mapped out so accurately that a man might know what water he had, what current, what beacon he was near, what style of wind he might expect, and from which direction, on any particular day in the year, at any given point on the world's broad surface. 'They that go down to the sea in ships see the wonders of the great deep' - but this modern navigation out-wonders any wonder the scriptural writers dreampt of. To see a man stand in the night, when everything looks alike - far out in the midst of a boundless sea - and measure from one star to another and tell to a dot right where the ship is - tell the very spot the little insignificant speck occupies on a vast expanse of land and sea twenty-five thousand miles in circumference! Verily, with his imperial intellect and his deep-searching wisdom, man is almost a God!
"In the strongest current of the Gulf Stream at 4 o'clock this morning, off Jupiter Inlet - 3 1/2 miles an hour. Numerous bets we wouldn't make 250 miles - made 271 in the 24 hours ending at noon. The current for the next 24 hours will not be so strong."
"JANUARY 10th. - At noon shall be off Hatteras, 26 days out from San Francisco. We shall leave this warming pan of a Gulf Stream to-day, and then it will cease to be genial summer weather and become wintry cold. We already see the signs - they put feather-beds and blankets on the berths this morning. It is warm, now, and raining.
"Eight sick - five diarrhea - two better - three convalescent.
"Passing out of the Gulf Stream rapidly. At 2 P.M., temperature of the water had fallen seven degrees in half an hour - from 72 degrees down to 65 degrees. Already the day is turning cold, and one after another the boys adjourn from the deck a moment and then come back with overcoats on. At 2: 30, temperature of water two degrees lower - viz., 63 degrees. At 3, it was 61 degrees. It fell eleven degrees in an hour and a half. Then we passed out, and the weather turned bitter cold."
" 11: 30 P.M. - Dark, stormy, and villainously cold. Snow blew in my face as I fought the wind, and came forward to the wheelhouse.
"JANUARY 11th - 7 P.M. - Been in bed all day, trying to keep warm; can't get near the steam pipes in the smoking-room on account of the babies and the sick women. If they like it in there, they're welcome; but they'll freeze if they persist in leaving the windows open. It is Brown's turn to be sick to-night; I will turn out and find him, and drum the boys forward for seven-up.
"JANUARY 12th - 1 A.M. - Man named Peterson is just dead - not cholera. We are nearing New York. He died on soundings, and so we shall not bury him in the ocean."
I captured Brown's journal, and I mean to make an extract from it, whether it be fair or not.
"MONDAY MORNING. - Found my old girl setting in her old place by the taffrail, sighing and pensive, just as she always is, and also reading poetry and picking her nose with a fork. I cannot live without her.
"TUESDAY - This purser has got his own way for making out what he calls his Custom House statement. Says they have to have it, but they never read it, so it isn't particular how it's done. He was scratching away at it, busy, in his office. I asked him how in the nation he found out every passenger's age and trade, and nationality, and all that sort of thing? 'Guess 'em, myself,' he said. 'If a man's name's Molineux, of course he's a Frenchman; if his name's O'Flannigan, of course he's an Irish man; if his name's Smith, set him down for any place that's handy; as to his age or his trade, who the devil's business is that? - put 'em down what you please - Custom House people don't read it anyway - all pursers do it this way - the law's a farce, got up by some ass of a back-country Congressman, that had never been at sea in his life. "Well,' says I, 'let's see how you've got some of us down.' And he showed me:
"'Wm. Brown. - Missionary - age, 98 - native of Timbuctoo.
"'Mark Twain - Short card sharp - age, 24 - South Sea Islander.
" ' Miss Slimmens - Milliner and moral philosopher - age, 62 - native of Terra del Fuego.'
"That is the way that long-legged humbug prejudices Government against respectable people."
SAFE AT LAST IN "THE STATES"
We swore the ship through at quarantine, which was right - she hadn't had any real cholera on board since we left Greytown - and at 8 o'clock this morning we stood in the biting air of the upper deck and sailed by the snow-covered, wintry looking residences on Staten Island - recognized Castle Garden - beheld the vast city spread out beyond, encircled with its palisade of masts, and adorned with its hundred steeples - saw the steam-tug and ferry-boats swarming through the floating ice, instinct with a frenzied energy, as we passed the river - and in a little while we were ashore and safe housed at the Metropolitan.
After comparing notes, all decided that the voyage had been exceedingly pleasant, notwithstanding its little drawbacks, and that we would like very well to leave the cholera ashore and take the trip over again.
The Nicaragua Steamship Company are building three splendid new steamers, all of them fast and commodious - and six weeks hence the first one will start around the Horn to do duty on the other side. They claim that she will be able to make fifteen knots right along with twenty pounds of steam. I would like to go in one of their new ships and see that beautiful scenery on the Lake and San Juan River again.
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