East and West Poems

The Wonderful Spring of San Joaquin

Bret Harte

OF ALL the fountains that poets sing,—
Crystal, thermal, or mineral spring,
Ponce de Leon’s Fount of Youth,
Wells with bottoms of doubtful truth,—
In short, of all the springs of Time
That ever were flowing in fact or rhyme,
That ever were tasted, felt, or seen,
There were none like the Spring of San Joaquin.

Anno Domini eighteen-seven,
Father Dominguez (now in heaven,—
Obiit eighteen twenty-seven)
Found the spring, and found it, too,
By his mule’s miraculous cast of a shoe;
For his beast—a descendant of Balaam’s ass—
Stopped on the instant, and would not pass.

The Padre thought the omen good,
And bent his lips to the trickling flood;
Then—as the Chronicles declare,
On the honest faith of a true believer—
His cheeks, though wasted, lank, and bare,
Filled like a withered russet pear
In the vacuum of a glass receiver,
And the snows that seventy winters bring
Melted away in that magic spring.

Such, at least, was the wondrous news
The Padre brought into Santa Cruz.
The Church, of course, had its own views
Of who were worthiest to use
The magic spring; but the prior claim
Fell to the aged, sick, and lame.
Far and wide the people came:
Some from the healthful Aptos Creek
Hastened to bring their helpless sick;
Even the fishers of rude Soquel
Suddenly found they were far from well;
The brawny dwellers of San Lorenzo
Said, in fact, they had never been so;
And all were ailing,—strange to say,—
From Pescadero to Monterey.

Over the mountain they poured in,
With leathern bottles and bags of skin;
Through the cañons a motley throng
Trotted, hobbled, and limped along.
The Fathers gazed at the moving scene
With pious joy and with souls serene;
And then—a result perhaps foreseen—
They laid out the Mission of San Joaquin.

Not in the eyes of faith alone
The good effects of the water shone;
But skins grew rosy, eyes waxed clear,
Of rough vaquero and muleteer;
Angular forms were rounded out,
Limbs grew supple and waists grew stout;
And as for the girls,—for miles about
They had no equal! To this day,
From Pescadero to Monterey,
You’ll still find eyes in which are seen
The liquid graces of San Joaquin.

There is a limit to human bliss,
And the Mission of San Joaquin had this;
None went abroad to roam or stay
But they fell sick in the queerest way,—
A singular maladie du pays,
With gastric symptoms: so they spent
Their days in a sensuous content,
Caring little for things unseen
Beyond their bowers of living green,
Beyond the mountains that lay between
The world and the Mission of San Joaquin.

Winter passed, and the summer came
The trunks of madrono, all aflame,
Here and there through the underwood
Like pillars of fire starkly stood.
All of the breezy solitude
Was filled with the spicing of pine and bay
And resinous odors mixed and blended;
And dim and ghostlike, far away,
The smoke of the burning woods ascended.
Then of a sudden the mountains swam,
The rivers piled their floods in a dam,
The ridge above Los Gatos Creek
Arched its spine in a feline fashion;
The forests waltzed till they grew sick,
And Nature shook in a speechless passion;
And, swallowed up in the earthquake’s spleen,
The wonderful Spring of San Joaquin
Vanished, and never more was seen!

Two days passed: the Mission folk
Out of their rosy dream awoke;
Some of them looked a trifle white,
But that, no doubt, was from earthquake fright.
Three days: there was sore distress,
Headache, nausea, giddiness.
Four days: faintings, tenderness
Of the mouth and fauces; and in less
Than one week—here the story closes;
We won’t continue the prognosis—
Enough that now no trace is seen
Of Spring or Mission of San Joaquin.


You see the point? Don’t be too quick
To break bad habits: better stick,
Like the Mission folk, to your arsenic.

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