Sunday, April 30, 2017

Diary of John Hay: March 6, 1864

A beautiful Sunday; the purest southern day; the air cool but cherishing and kindly; the distant shore fringed with palms and cocoanuts; the sea a miracle of color; on the one hand a bright vivid green; on the other a deep dark blue; flaked by the floating shadows cast by the vagrant clouds that loaf in the liquid sky.

Florida Keys. Passed Hillsboro and New River Inlet in the morning, and made Cape Florida at noon. We struck out seaward there, skirting the inner edge of the Gulf-Stream where the pure emerald of the water was marred by the darker waves of the Gulf. Lighter around the vessel grew the pale green of the sea; more vivid and brilliant the shine in shore. When we passed the shoals off the Cape and took our southerly course outside the reefs I thought I had never seen so splendid a prodigality of coloring in any marine picture. On our left, towards the horizon, rolled the dark azure of the Gulf-Stream; before us, and to our right, as far as the distant shore, the vivid emerald of these strange Floridian waters, the darker vegetation of the coral keys throwing its pale beauty into finer relief, while the sunny skies were flushed with a faint auroral radiance of pearl and pink, such as tinges the polished lips of the sea-shells of this coast.

Leaning over the starboard rail, gazing with a lazy enjoyment at this scene of enchantment, at the fairy islands scattered like a chain of gems on the bosom of this transcendent sea, bathed in the emerald ripples and basking in the rosy effulgence of the cherishing sky; the white sails flitting through the quiet inlets; the soft breeze causing the sunny waters to sparkle and the trees to wave, I thought that here were the Isles of the Blessed; within the magic ring of these happy islands the syrens were singing, and the maids were twining their flowing hair with sprays of the coral. Anchored in everlasting calm, far from the malice of the sky, or the troubling eyes of men, they sported through the tranquil years of the everlasting summer, in the sacred idleness of the immortals.

My friend Canis Marinus begged to differ. He said: — “There's the Ragged Keys; full o’ mudtorkles and rattle-snakes; them little boats is full of Conks — come up for to sponge.”

Indian Key. At dusk we came to anchor off Indian Key, a rather famous place where a horticultural lunatic lived, planted and died. We rowed ashore. As we neared the island, a gruff voice hailed us:— “Who are you?” “Reed!” shouted our pilot, which seemed satisfactory. We scraped heavily on the coral bottom as we went in, and brought up at a ricketty old wharf. There had once been a rather lively place here. Large buildings fitted up for hospital purposes in the old wars. Now occupied by Captain Bethel and a family of spongers. We asked for fish. Bethel said it was Sabbath; caught no fish to-day. Asked for cocoanuts. Said hadn't any gathered. “Pretty ugly job gathering on ’em in the night.” Our little purser volunteered for the service, and he, Stickney and I went out. He and I scaled alternate trees and sent down the heavy clusters. We plunged into a tangled abattis of some thorny thing they called manilla, which scratched and pierced like the devil
We came in bearing our spoils and found the whole family in the great barn-like room of the store. White-headed, apathetic — open-mouthed — silent — indolent and stupid. We bought sponges and shells of them galore, and went back to our ship.
Bethel came after us for a newspaper and a gass with Reed . They talked about wrecks and the profits thereof — of weddings and elopements — of crops and wealth, — at intervals of ten minutes between interlocutions. Brains hardening into an unlovely mould in a lonely life on one of these coral islands.

SOURCES: Clara B. Hay, Letters of John Hay and Extracts from Diary, Volume 1, p. 172-5.

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