ST. MICHAEL’S presents itself as a long island with volcanic hills at either end, and in the center a wide monotonous slope sweeping down to the sea, at the foot of which lies the town of Ponta Delgada. The town is a tumbled mass of white blocks, which, when seen from a distance, may be a drift of chalk and red sand-stone piled up along the shore. The slope behind it is dotted with white houses, which appear as if they were in process of being washed down the incline to join the general heap at the bottom.
The delightful city of Ponta Delgada looks very picturesque from the harbor. A black sea-wall rises out of the pool, with curious and unsteady houses built along the top of it. Each old bastion in this wall has been converted into some sort of semi-amphibious cave-dwelling. There is a very ancient fort too, so green that it might have been fashioned out of a yew hedge. The houses about the haven hang, for the most part, over the sea, as if they were being pushed off the land by the weight of the town. Behind lies the white city, with its deep red roofs and its occasional walls of blue or yellow to temper the glare of it. Out of the medley rise towers and steeples, a Norfolk Island pine or two, and a hill with a church on the summit of it. The little boat harbour is one of the most fascinating features of the place. It may have been brought here bodily from Venice. It is overshadowed with white and blue houses, beneath which are a colonnade of many arches, as well as pillared stairs which lead down to the water. Picturesque folk lounge over the parapets, while to the sea stair are moored gaudy-coloured boats of an unfamiliar type. The way out of this little harbour, towards the town, is through a noble stone gateway of three arches, elaborately ornamented and ablaze with heraldic devices. It bears the date 1783.
The town itself is bright; clean and cheery, wholesome and trim. In the square by the landing-stage is the handsome Matrice church, a building of strange and quaint design with a fine facade of carved stone, and with many wondrous works in its interior. A still more remarkable and more ancient edifice is the Jesuits’ church. In many of its features it is probably unique. Without it has the aspect of a stately country mansion, within it is as elaborately decorated as a Jain temple in India. In the streets are numerous old stone houses of much dignity, certain beautiful convents and many brightly painted buildings of a humbler kind. Mule teams, laden with packs or panniers, are the chief means of transport, although donkeys are much affected by the town folk and lumbering bullock-waggons by the people from the country. Most of the women still wear the dark blue capote, which covers them head and foot, as with a monk’s cowl and cloak. This dress must be one of the most curious extremes ever reached in the erratic evolution of female clothing. On the outskirts of the town are dainty gardens which add not a little to the charm of the White City.
All who idled the day ashore came back to the ship with the assurance that St. Michael’s was a pleasant place. It seemed from the little they said that the secret of the charm was not to be found in the quaint Venetian boat harbour, nor about the ancient forts and walls, nor in the shades of the incense-scented churches, but that it had to do with something more subtle and unexpected. It was merely this, that after many months in the tropicsperhaps after many yearsthey had come upon things that reminded them of England.
There was, in the first place, a clean, keen air, that brought with it memories of gusty chalk cliffs and gorse-covered downs. It was a white wind, alert and virile, shrewd as chill steel, a familiar wind the mere breathing of which was a nearly forgotten joy. After the drugged, listless atmosphere that stews over the land of palms, it came as a welcome, satisfying draught.
Moreover there fell upon the nostrils the well-remembered smell of the good, brown earth, the savour of our English mother earth, the smell of the ploughed field and of the spade-turned garden. There is no such sense of the land in the alien tropics, rich as the soil may be and abundant as may be the rain.
Delightful too, after many months, was the first sight of leafless trees bearing their strong limbs and their tingling branches to the kindly sky. After the extravagant, never-fading green of the South, this sight brought with it a great measure of relief, for persistent splendour is of all things the most wearisome. Fresh from the garish display of imperial-tinted flowers, it was like meeting with an old village friend to see once more the common nettle and a crop of dandelions. The Portuguese gardener who was proud to show a poor, marasmic palm, shivering in the open, was much surprised at the rapture these weeds produced, nor could he understand the joy which greeted a clump of ferns and a stretch of real grassnot Guinea grass nor Bahama grassbut the grass of the lawn and the open common.
Then, again, on all sides were cottages with chimneys and the rare sight of smoke rising heavenwards, bringing with it the smell of burning wood, and the recollection, well-nigh blotted out, of firesides around which folk gather when the day is done.
These pleasant sights touched a chord of memory, primitive enough it may be, yet precious to all whose homes lie in northern latitudes. In place of the florid poetry and gaudy romance of the Indies we had come unexpectedly upon lines from a spelling book, upon childish verses learnt in the nursery, upon ” the sough of an old song.”