Down South or Yacht Adventure in Florida




Strange as it may seem, the Shepards, though they had resided two winters in Jacksonville, had never been to St. Augustine, or even up the St. Johns River. The state of Mrs. Shepard's health had not permitted her to travel for several years, until the preceding summer. They had simply left the ancient city and the up-river glories of "The Land of Flowers" to a more propitious season in the future.

"How do you like the looks of St. Augustine, Miss Edith?" I asked, after we had passed the civilities of the moment, though I did not venture to present Mr. Kirby Cornwood to the party.

"I like it well enough," replied the pretty young lady, with something like a yawn. "But I am getting tired of it so soon; for we have seen so many old Spanish cities in Spain and in the West Indies, that St. Augustine reads like an old story."

The face of the native Floridian wore an expression of horror as he listened to the remark of Miss Edith. Possibly he might have abated his astonishment at this partially unfavorable opinion of his native city if he had known that she and Owen spent most of their time in thinking of other matters than an old city.

"I am delighted with the place," added Mrs. Shepard. "But we pass various objects of interest without knowing what they are. We have not even a guide-book to help us out."

Mr. Cornwood smiled, but he said nothing. I wondered that he did not offer his services to the lady; but he manifested what seemed to be a very strange modesty for him, standing a little apart from the rest of us, and not even looking at the pretty face of Miss Edith. I took the liberty to introduce the Floridian. He removed his Panama, and bowed low when I mentioned his name; but he did not even speak, much less indulge in any of his pretentious speeches. The walk was resumed, and in the course of the forenoon we had explored the city, from Fort San Marco, on the north, to the point at the south of the city.

Mr. Cornwood proved that he knew all about St. Augustine. I had studied the history of the place and the state very carefully during the leisure hours of the voyage from the Bermudas, and I was able to confirm the truth of all he said, so far as my knowledge extended, though he went far beyond me. In a little while he was the very centre of the party. It is true that Owen several times requested him to "cut it short," at which the Floridian did not seem to be at all offended; but he soon found that the rest of the company did not wish to have even the historical portions of the guide's discourse abbreviated.

I do not intend to give the history or describe the objects of interest we saw in Florida, except incidentally, for it would take all my space to do these, and I do not pretend to do much more than tell my story. I must say that I was very much interested in the history and descriptions of Mr. Cornwood; and I have no doubt my readers would be equally interested, if I had pages enough at my disposal to include them.

The Floridian did his duty modestly, though he had become the most important person of the party for the time being. There was not a particle of the "brag" and pretension which had caused me to distrust everything he said. As we walked from place to place he kept at a respectful distance from the passengers, and never intruded himself upon them, though he was always ready to answer any questions. After a three-hours' run we returned to the pier.

I had expected that the party would prefer to go on shore, after their sea-voyage, and take up their residence for our stay at the principal hotel; but they manifested no such intention. As they had taken nothing on shore with them, I had told the steward to have dinner ready for them at the usual hour. The port quarter-boat, which was mine, had come to the landing-place, and the party embarked. I invited Mr. Cornwood to go on board with me, and he accepted the invitation. He took his place in the fore-sheets of the boat, apparently for the purpose of maintaining his respectful distance from the passengers.

In a few minutes we were on the deck of the Sylvania. The passengers retired to the cabin, and Cornwood followed me to my state-room. As soon as we entered the apartment his manner underwent a sudden change. He was as free and familiar as he had been at our interview on board in the morning. As I interpreted his conduct, he considered himself on an entire equality with me, while he intended to treat my passengers with the utmost deference and respect. I did not object to his view of the relations to be maintained to my passengers and myself; on the contrary, his view was precisely my own.

"What is your price for the service you propose to render, Mr. Cornwood?" I asked, when we were seated.

"Five dollars a day, including Sundays," he replied, without any hesitation. "Of course this salary is besides my board and all expenses."

"That is only three times my own wages," I added with a smile.

"If you will engage me for a year, I will call it fifty dollars a month, and be glad to make this slight reduction of two-thirds," he answered promptly, and with the most easy assurance. "I can make hay only when the sun shines, captain; and I could make more at your wages twice over than I can at my own. The year is not often more than four months long for my business. I attend upon first-class parties only, and I charge eight dollars a day when I am engaged for only a single week. Your party want to go up the St. Johns for at least a month. However, if you object to the price, there is a party at the St. Augustine Hotel who want me for a week to go to Indian River with them. They are willing to give me ten dollars a day; but I prefer to go with your party at the price I named."

"I am very much obliged to you for this mark of consideration on your part," I replied. "Though you are a perfect stranger to me, I suppose it would not be regarded as an insult for me to ask for any testimonials."

"Not at all. Though I could procure a bushel or two of them, I do not happen to have any with me; but I will refer you to the landlords, and to any resident of St. Augustine."

He seemed to be ready to answer anything I could ask him, and he named a dozen persons of whom I might inquire in regard to him. While the passengers were on shore in the forenoon, I had directed the hands to spread the awnings on the quarter-deck and forecastle. When dinner was over the party seemed to be very well satisfied to remain on board after their walk, for after the sea-voyage the exertion tired them. Owen told me they should not go on shore again, and I decided to inquire into the character and antecedents of Mr. Cornwood.

When we came up from dinner I found Owen smoking his cigar on the forecastle. My passenger asked Cornwood a question, and they were soon engaged in conversation in regard to Florida. Taking the port boat, with Ben Bowman and Hop Tossford, I left the steamer. I did not even take the trouble to tell the Floridian where I was going. If my inquiries were satisfactorily answered, I intended to engage him for the time we remained in Florida. He had mentioned the name of a family that boarded on the west side of the city, near the San Sebastian River, and I decided to make the first inquiries there.

I steered the boat around the point into the river, and soon passed the more thickly settled portion of the town. Orange groves lined the shore, and the fragrant jasmine scented the air. If I had not been all winter in the tropics, I should have gone into ecstasies over the scene that was spread out before me. But orange groves were nothing new to me now, and I was familiar with banana and palm trees.

I could not be insensible to the beauties of the region, and in that mild atmosphere I could not help enjoying it. On the shore were the dwellings of wealthy men who spent their winters in this delightful locality. Soon we came to a house, on the very bank of the river, with a kind of pier built out into the river, at which several sail and row boats were moored. This was the large boarding-house to which I had been directed by the Floridian.

I identified it from his description some time before we reached it. As the boat approached the house, and I ran in towards the pier, I noticed there was a great commotion in the vicinity. The inmates were rushing out of the house, negroes were running here and there, apparently without any settled purpose, and not a few women were screaming.

"I wonder what the matter is at that house," I said to the oarsmen, who were back to the scene, and could see nothing of it.

"Matter enough, I should say," replied Ben Bowman, who pulled the bow-oar, as he looked behind him. "The house is on fire!"

The immense live-oaks that half concealed the house from my view had prevented me from seeing the volume of smoke and flame that was rising from one corner of the mansion. The fire had already made considerable progress.

"Give way, lively, my men!" I called to the rowers. "We shall be needed there."

Ben and Hop pulled a strong stroke, and they exerted themselves until the oars bent before their vigorous muscles. I headed the boat for some steps I saw on the pier, and in a few moments more we were within hailing distance of the wharf.

"Way enough!" I called to the oarsmen. They ceased rowing, and brought their oars to a perpendicular, man-of-war fashion, as required by our boat-drill.

Ben Bowman went to the bow, fended off, and then jumped ashore with the painter in his hand. Hop Tossford and I followed him in good order, as all were instructed to move when in the boats; and in a moment we were on the pier. My men broke into a run for the scene of the fire; but I moved more slowly, and studied the situation as I walked up the wharf.

The inmates of the house and the neighbors who had gathered appeared to be in utter confusion, and incapable of doing anything, if there was anything that could be done. It seemed to me that the fire had progressed too far to be checked, and that the entire destruction of the house was inevitable. But certainly some portion of the property in the building could be saved, and the people seemed to have no power even to attend to this duty. Our boat's crew could set a good example in this way, if in no other; and I hurried my steps as soon as I could decide what to do.

As soon as I reached the garden in the rear of the house, I found there was something more important to be done than saving furniture. A gentleman whom I judged to be about forty years of age was on the point of rushing into the burning house when he was held back by others. They said the stairs were already in flames, and the second story could be reached only from the outside.

"My daughter is asleep in the corner-room!" gasped the gentleman, pointing to the window of the chamber.

The next instant Hop Tossford was running up the posts of the veranda.

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