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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

San Antonio of the Gardens

By Thomas Allibone Janvier (1849–1913)

[Born in Philadelphia, Penn., 1849. Died in New York, N. Y., 1913. The Century Magazine. 1889.]

HE who goes westward from the City of Mexico goes out by the gate of the Tlaxpana, and so along the causeway to Tacuba, the very path over which the Spaniards passed, leaving many killed and of the living nearly all being sore wounded, when they fled from the city that dismal night more than three hundred and fifty years ago.

But this now is a very pleasant path; for on the right and on the left of it are fertile fields and trimly kept gardens, and shading it are many great green trees. And only a little way out upon it is the village of San Antonio, built of gray-brown adobe on the level land beside the causeway, and peopled by certain ragged, uncared-for, easy-going descendants of the race that now serves where once it ruled.

The wayfaring stranger who loves a dish of friendly talk with chance acquaintances—and the wayfaring stranger not thus socially disposed will find all lands barren, and will come again to his own land not one whit the wiser of the world than when he left his home—will rest awhile in this village to chat with whomsoever it may please Heaven to send him to hold converse with. Nor need he fear that Heaven will not provide him with a talking-mate. Let him but seat himself beneath one of the great trees beside the roadway, and presently a stray old man will pause to pass a greeting with him; then a vender of earthen pots, coming in from some outlying village to the city to sell his wares, will halt his donkey—on whose patient back the great red pots are high heaped up—and will ask in a gentle voice for a light for his corn-husk cigarito; an old woman will hobble up and say a friendly word or two; a young woman with a baby in her arms will edge out shyly from a nearby doorway, find so stand modestly aside, but ready to add her contribution to the conversation when it shall become a little more general and when amicable relations with the stranger shall become a little more assured; then another old man or two will join the group, accepting with a grave courtesy the offered cigarito; a lazy young fellow with baskets to sell, but with no apparent desire to sell them, will seat himself near; and outside of all will be a light fringe of pernicious ragged little boys. And all of these simple-hearted folk presently will be as frank and as friendly as though they had known their chance acquaintance all their lives.

It will be in such wayside talk as this that the stranger alone will learn—for in books he will look for it in vain—the story of the little church that once stood hereabouts; of the very little convent there was adjoining it; of the two Franciscan friars who ministered in the church, dwelling in the convent, and whose earthly possessions (and these but held in trust from Heaven) were a little garden, and the doves which had built nests in a corner of the convent, and a certain grave, black cat, and a lame and very lazy ass.

It was all in the far-back time when the Spanish viceroys were the rulers of Mexico; when the fleet sailed once a year from Cadiz westward, and once a year sailed eastward again from Vera Cruz laden deep with silver from the mines; when hushed voices still told in horror of great cruelties done by the fierce Chichemecas to frontier adventurers into the region north of Querétaro; and when the good fathers, setting death and torture at defiance that God’s work might be done by them, still were busy sending out their holy missions for the saving of heathen souls. The viceroy in those days was the illustrious Don Antonio Sebastian de Toledo, Marques de Mancera: who came into the capital of his vice-kingdom and there assumed the duties of his high office in the month of October in the year 1664.

About this time it was that in the convent of San Antonio de Padua—that in a little time came to be known only as San Antonio of the Gardens, because hereabouts, then as now, the fertile land was laid out in many little gardens which the Indians tilled—there dwelt the two brothers Antonio and Inocencio. Fray Inocencio was a short and round and plump-cheeked, ruddy little man; and Fray Antonio was very tall and thin and pale. These brothers were vowed to the rule of St. Francis, and until ordered hither for the cure of Indians’ souls the great convent of San Francisco in the City of Mexico had been their home. A wonderful change it was for them when they came out from that “vast bee-hive of holiness”—as the convent of San Francisco is called by a chronicler of the time—to dwell in a convent whereof they were the only inhabitants, and the extent of which, not counting the tiny sacristy of their tiny church, was just a little refectory, that also was a kitchen, and two cells. Yet had it been the size of a city they scarcely could have been more elated by their translation; for whereas in the great convent they were but two brothers among hundreds, with many above them in degree, here they were everything themselves—free to divide between them the whole range of the conventual offices, from that of Portero up to that of Guardian.

As they stood for the first time alone together in the little garden, the door behind them that opened upon the causeway being closed and barred, and as the knowledge of the absolute power that was theirs in this their kingdom came into their hearts, Fray Inocencio, who was of a lively disposition and very quick to give animated expression to his thoughts, skipped in a most carnal fashion; and still more carnally stood for an appreciable length of time upon one leg while he held the other leg in the air.

Fray Antonio, whose mind was of a graver and more temperate cast, looked upon this exhibition of worldly pride sorrowfully, but not reproachfully. Weakness of the flesh was Fray Inocencio’s besetting sin; but he knew his weakness, and when he failed to overcome it he expiated it by penance and sought remission of it in prayer. This was known to Fray Antonio, and so was his loving, gentle soul the less disposed to manifest by outward sign his inward sorrow when, as now, his brother lapsed from grace.

In the darkness that night Fray Antonio heard the sound of scourging in Fray Inocencio’s cell, and in the morning the usually ruddy cheeks of the little round brother were pale and his eyes were dull; but peace rested on him, for he felt that through the sacrifice of the flesh the sin of the flesh had been expiated, and so his spirit was at rest.

When the mass which they celebrated together was ended, and they had come into the refectory to make and to drink their chocolate, he said simply, as he stood beside the fireplace, stirring the chocolate in its earthen pot: “God brings the least deserving of us, brother, into the high places of the earth; but he loves best those who, though thus exalted, still serve him humbly. We have only to seek his aid, and of his strength he will so arm our weakness that we may prevail over the sin that shows itself in carnal pride.”

The gentle eyes of Fray Antonio rested lovingly upon Fray Inocencio, and in them shone the light of a comforting and sustaining trust as he answered: “Brother, the grace of God ever is greater than our sins.” Nor did the thought at all enter his simple soul—as assuredly it would have entered a soul in which there had been even the very least of worldly guile—that other than a serious meaning could attach to Fray Inocencio’s reference to the exaltation of their estate. Thus ever did Fray Antonio help and strengthen Fray Inocencio with a sweet and holy love: and many needs had Fray Inocencio of such comforting, for, the flesh proverbially being weak in little round and ruddy men, the seasons were sadly short in which he had not some misdeed of his unruly nature to bemoan.

In all seasons a heavy burden rested upon Fray Inocencio’s soul because he was so ruddy and so fat. This corporal affliction, sadly unseemly in one vowed to the austerities of the religious life, was of such a nature that abstinence had no effect upon it, and for the removal of it even prayer was without avail; so that what little solace his case allowed him was to be got by regarding his fatness as a cross put upon him for his soul’s sake, warning him to eat little and so to mortify the flesh that good might come to him in the end. Yet was this a hard cross for Fray Inocencio to bear; for he had a very eager natural love, as strong as it was sinful, for all manner of toothsome things. Especially had he a most passionate fondness for beans which after being well boiled were fried delicately in lard—which dish was not less delicious than it was damnably fattening. Most pathetic was his look of resignation when beans thus cooked were served in the refectory of the great convent of San Francisco, as he resisted their succulent temptation and ate instead the little dry cakes of corn-meal.

In the convent of San Antonio of the Gardens Fray Inocencio was spared the temptation of fried beans, for Fray Antonio, that his brother might not be led into sin, declared that he preferred his beans boiled. And more than this did Fray Antonio do for his brother’s comforting. Being himself a most abstemious man naturally, with no liking for food save as a means of sustaining his life and strength in God’s service, he deliberately set himself to eating in private great quantities of all manner of fattening things; and this he did to the end that by rounding out his own leanness he might make the plumpness of Fray Inocencio easier for him to bear. But beyond throwing into disorder by such unwonted quantities of rich food the functions of his liver, the stuffing that Fray Antonio gave himself produced no results. Therefore, being as yellow as an orange, he gladly gave over his strange discipline. And this was wise of him: for the simple truth of the matter was that it had pleased God that one of these brothers should be fat and that the other should be thin; and neither of them, howsoever he might strive, the one by eating too little and the other by eating too much, could change that which God had decreed.

Though thus tried in flesh and in spirit, these brothers were very happy in their life in the little convent and in their ministrations of the sacred offices in the little church. In their garden they tilled the earth lovingly, taking great pleasure in its sweet, fresh smell, and in the bounteous return that it yielded them. Fray Inocencio had a rare knowledge of the gardener’s craft, and especially had he a relish for growing such vegetables as were good to eat. In this previcarious form of gluttony, as it might be called, he did not deny himself; for, setting a stout guard upon the cravings of his own stomach, he carried on his back the best of all the good things which he grew to the great convent, where the brothers, less scrupulous than himself, ate them all with a prompt avidity. Fray Antonio, though he did his share of work in the kitchen-garden, found his pleasure in the growing of beautiful and sweet-smelling flowers, which each day he set before the sacred image of the great San Antonio that the little church enshrined. Sometimes Fray Antonio fancied that as he placed upon the altar dedicated to his holy namesake these sweet offerings there shone upon the gentle face of the saint a loving smile. Nor would such miracle have been surprising, for this very image—as the chronicler Vetancurt tells—had raised a dead child to life! In that good time faith was a living principle in the hearts of men, and the blessed saints graciously requited the trust that was placed in them by working many miracles. It is not so in these evil later days.

In the holy work that was set them of saving heathen souls the brothers ever were instant and zealous. Fray Inocencio assailed the devil at all times and in all places with a stout energy that was in keeping with the sturdiness of his body and mind. Indeed, such pictures as this plump little friar drew of the entire devilishness of a very personal devil, and of the blazing horrors of a most real hell, sufficed to scare many an Indian, though through all his life set firmly in the wicked courses of idolatry, into the saving ways of Christian righteousness. Fray Antonio was less successful as an exorciser, but his gentle words and great tenderness of heart and spirit enabled him to make, perhaps, more lasting converts. Through the ministrations of this good brother many a troubled heathen soul was set at rest in Christian holiness, being brought happily to grace through love.


So far as this was possible in one whose heart was full of love and charity, Fray Inocencio at times envied Fray Antonio because he was superior to the many temptations which made his own life burdensome; but he knew nothing of the temptations of the spirit which beset his finer-natured companion, which sometimes, as in the present yielding to a too whimsical humor,—that yet was as much a part of his natural being as of Fray Inocencio’s natural being were his stoutness and his ruddy checks,—begot evil results which caused him heart-bitterness and much distress of soul.

Doubtless, being more sublimate, the pains of conscience which attend upon waywardness of the spirit are more searching than those which attend upon waywardness of the flesh; yet because of their gross and tangible nature the fleshly sins are more instantly appalling. Thus Fray Inocencio probably would have reasoned, had he possessed a mind disposed towards such abstract considerations, together with a knowledge of the spiritual suffering which Fray Antonio at times endured; but as neither of these possessions was his, he simply bemoaned very heartily his own frequent lapses from grace. And greatly did he lament one especially great sin, the doing of which came about in this wise:

One day, while Fray Inocencio was gathering lettuces, and while Fray Antonio was tending lovingly his flowers, there came over the top of the garden wall the sound of angry words, and then of heavy blows, and then of a cry that was something like the bray of an ass, and—being a very great cry and terrible—something like the shriek of a giant in pain. With the promptness that was customary with him, Fray Inocencio unbarred the door and ran out upon the causeway to see what was the meaning of this commotion; and as beside the door stood a stout staff, that he carried with him for support when he walked to the great convent with a back-load of vegetables, he seized it that he might not affront the danger, if danger there were, unarmed. More deliberately came out also through the doorway Fray Antonio. And very pitiable was the sight that met their eyes.

Upon the ground lay a poor ass, laden with great earthen pots, and the two Indians with him were beating him with their sticks to make him rise, the while shouting at him all manner of coarse abuse. The ass, with so agonized a look that a heart of stone would have been melted by it with pity, was crying aloud in pain; for one of his legs—as the brothers saw, though the Indians seemed to perceive it not—had broken under him as he fell beneath his too-heavy load. He was but a small ass, and his lading of pots would have been overheavy for a strong mule.

Then was the wrath of Fray Inocencio so kindled within him that every fibre of his little round person tingled with rage. Forgetting all the teachings of gentleness of the blessed saints, and the example of long-suffering set him by the good father St. Francis, and his own vow to a life of peace and holiness—forgetting all this, Fray Inocencio in an instant had gathered up and tucked into his girdle the skirts of his blue gown, that he might have the free use of his short stout legs, and most carnally had fallen afoul of the backs and shoulders of those cruel Indians with his staff.

As for the Indians, this visible outbreak of the wrath of God took them so sharply by surprise, while such pain penetrated their brown hides with the blows which Fray Inocencio rained down upon them, that without pausing for thought or consideration they incontinently took to their heels. In an instant they had plunged through the slimy water of the acéquia beside the causeway, and were fleeing away across the meadow-land beyond as though their assailant had been not a little stout friar, but the devil himself.

Then Fray Inocencio, puffing greatly—for at the best of times he was but a short-winded man—knelt down beside the ass with Fray Antonio and aided him to loose the cords which bound the pots upon its back, and so set it free of its grievous load. Together, very tenderly, they lifted the maimed creature and carried it into the convent garden; and while Fray Inocencio gave it water to drink—and this before he had quenched his own thirst—Fray Antonio, who had a good knowledge of the surgeon’s craft, set himself to binding up the broken leg in a splint. And the poor ass, seeming to understand that it was being dealt with by friends who meant well by it, suffered them to do with it what they would.

It was not until their labors were ended—the broken leg well set, and the ass straitly fastened in a little stall that they made for him that he might not stir the leg in its setting—that Fray Inocencio had time to think of the sin which he had fallen into in giving his righteous anger such unrighteous vent. He was the more distressed in spirit because, for the very life of him, he could not create in his heart a sincere repentance of having given to those Indians so sound a beating. Strive however much he might to crush it, the thought would assert itself that they richly deserved not only every blow that they received, but also the great many more blows which they escaped by running away. And with this thought most persistently came a carnal longing to get at them again and finish the work that he had so vigorously begun. To Fray Inocencio’s dying day this sin remained with him; and while the prickings of it were hard to bear, he had of it, at least, the compensating advantage that it always was with him as a wholesome reminder to keep his too-ready anger within due bounds.

Fortunately—for it is to be feared that he could not have resisted it—the temptation to finish the beating was not put in his way. That the Indians returned and carried off their earthen pots was inferred by the brothers when, having ended their surgical and other ministrations to the ass’s comfort, they looked out upon the causeway and found that the pots were gone. And they believed that from the Indians came the rather mysterious old man who presented himself the next day at the convent with a confused request for medicine for a sick child; and who contrived, while the apothecary-work was in progress, to get into the garden where the hurt ass was and make an examination of its state. But from this old man they could learn nothing of the owners of the ass; nor were their many inquiries among the Indians round about better rewarded. That the owners thus modestly veiled their identity, and that they made no effort to reclaim their property, on the whole was not surprising. No doubt they held, and wisely, that a broken-legged ass was not worth adventuring for within the dangerous range of the little friar’s staff.

Chiefly, as Fray Inocencio very firmly believed, because of the many prayers to this end that he addressed to the miracle-working image of San Antonio that was in the little church, the ass in due season got well. But as, through some mischance, the broken bone had gone awry in the splint, it healed crookedly; so that that leg was shorter than the other legs. From this fresh misfortune the ass suffered no pain, but thenceforward he was very lame.

Being thus healed, and, after a fashion, a serviceable ass once more, the question what they should do with him perplexed the brothers sadly. Of other valuable property, being strictly vowed to poverty, they had none. The cat Timoteo, called Susurro, and the doves, were wild things of nature; of no use to man save in so far as they were a source of happiness through the love in them and for them that God inspired. But the case of the ass, an animal both useful and valuable, was different. Fray Inocencio, into whose heart the devil put the thought that the ass very well might bear to the great convent the loads which he himself was wont to carry thither on his back, reasoned that, inasmuch as the ass in truth was not their own, but only in their ward until his rightful owners should be found, they might use him in all conscionable work without falling into sin. But Fray Antonio, seeing more clearly, pointed out that they had striven earnestly but vainly to find the ass’s owner, and that now there was small chance that the owner ever would be found at all; and he showed, further, that no matter in whom might vest his actual ownership, to them would belong, should they elect to avail themselves of it, his usufruct; which possession was a thing of value inconsistent with the poverty to which they were vowed. Yet, since the ass was not truly their own, he admitted, they had no right to sell him and to give the money to the poor—supposing the somewhat improbable case of any one being found willing to buy an ass that in addition to great natural laziness was hopelessly lame; nor were they free to give him away. Giving him in trust, to be surrendered should his owner ever be found, was the only solution of the matter that they could arrive at; and this failed because they could find no one who would accept the ass on these—or, indeed, on any other—terms. Yet to support an ass in absolute idleness, as Fray Antonio was forced to own, would be to violate the law of his being under which a beneficent Creator had placed him in the world for the good of man.

Altogether this case of conscience was so nice a one, and so beset by difficulties, that after the brothers had debated it for a long while together fruitlessly, and had prayed for guidance without receiving light upon their path in answer to their prayer, they determined to relegate its decision, through Fray Agustin de Vetancurt,—to whom, their little church being adjunct to the parish church of San José in San Francisco, they were directly responsible,—to the Very Reverend Father Friar Juan Gutierrez, who then governed the province of the Santo Evangelio, to which their convent pertained, and who was the Senior Provincial of the Franciscan order in New Spain.

This high resolve they executed. Driving before them the cause of their spiritual tribulation, and accommodating their steps to the halting slowness of his gait, and even stopping when he turned aside to crop in a meditative fashion at some especially tempting bunch of grass, they went together along the causeway, past the church of San Cosme, the convent of San Diego, the burning-place of the Inquisition, and the Alameda, and so through the outskirts of the city to the great convent. They entered by the gate from the Zuleta, and fastened the ass in the courtyard beneath the windows of the building set apart for the use of the commissioners-general of the order—the same building that now profanely has been changed into a hotel.

There was not a little merriment among the brothers when the purpose for which Fray Antonio and Fray Inocencio had come thither with the ass was known; for already the brothers within this convent, being grown rich and lustful of earthly pleasures, had so fallen from grace that conscientious scruples in regard to the ownership of a lame, wretched ass seemed to them laughable. But the Father Vetancurt, who was a holy man, and who had chosen Fray Antonio and Fray Inocencio for the missionary work that they had in charge because in the midst of much that was evil and corrupt they had remained pure, treated with a due seriousness the case of conscience that they had come to have resolved. That he smiled a little as he exhibited the matter to the Father Provincial is true; and this great dignitary smiled also on hearing what a quaint cause of perplexity beset the souls of the two brothers, and had been brought by them, in their rare simplicity, to him for resolution and adjustment. But the smiles of these two good men had in them nothing of derision, and, in truth, were not far removed from tears.

“It is the spirit of our father St. Francis alive again,” said the Provincial, reverently; and in all humility they thanked God that innocency so excellent should be found remaining pure amid so much of earthly corruption and spiritual guile.

Then came the brothers before the Father Provincial, and by his grace told him the whole of the matter that filled with anxious doubts their souls. Fray Antonio, who feared nothing but evil and the doing thereof, said what he had to say reverently, as became him in such a case, yet plainly and at his ease: telling how the ass came into their possession, yet touching but lightly upon the fiery part that Fray Inocencio had played; how they had sought earnestly but had failed to find his lawful owner, and therefore had no right either to sell him or to give him away; how no one could be found willing to accept him as a trust; and how, being thus forced to keep him themselves, they feared that the use of him was a valuable possession that their vow of poverty forbade. Fray Inocencio, who was terribly frightened at speaking to so great a personage, grew pale and stumbled in his speech; but by God’s help he told truly how he had beaten those cruel Indians; how his repentance of this act was not complete, since he could not banish from his heart the wish to finish the punishment that he had begun; and how the devil had put into his heart the desire to keep the ass, that in bringing vegetables to the great convent his own back might be spared. Having thus said to the end what he felt it to be his duty to say, he drew a long breath, wiped with the sleeve of his gown the beads of sweat from his forehead, and was still. That the case might be complete, the Father Provincial looked from the window and saw the ass fastened in the court below, and the brothers pointed to his crooked leg and told how in its healing the bone had gone awry; and the ass, hearing the voices of his friends, looked up towards them with affection and brayed a mighty bray.

With a full heart answered to them the Father Provincial:

“It is God himself, my brothers, who hath given this ass to you in reward for your tenderness and goodness of heart, and to accept a gift from him surely is no infraction of your vow. Go in peace to your convent again, and keep for your service this poor beast that you have saved from a life of misery, and in whose brute heart I perceive that there is for you such well-deserved love. Take you also my blessing—though, in truth, rather should I ask your blessing than thus give you mine.”

And the brothers, very grateful for the dispensation in their favor, but not at all understanding the full meaning of the Father Provincial’s words, made proper reverence to him and went their way homeward; being full of happiness because of the glad consciousness, untroubled by doubt or misgiving, that the ass now really was their very own.

Thereafter so often as it was necessary that vegetables should be brought from the little convent to the great one the bearer of the load was the lame ass, and behind him or beside him Fray Inocencio walked. As they slowly journeyed, these two held pleasant converse together; for Fray Inocencio maintained that the ass understood the meaning of human speech as well as he himself understood the meaning of the glances which the ass gave him, and the various twitchings of his scraggy tail, and the shakings of his head, and, above all, the whole vocabulary that was in the waggings of his ample ears.

It was, indeed, a cheery sight to see these friends upon the road together. At his best the ass hobbled along at a pace that a tortoise would have scorned for its slowness; and at times he would stop wholly and would gaze around him with a look of thoughtful inquiry; or he would step aside to crop a bit of grass that pleased his fancy; and ever and anon he would edge up to his friend and rub his long nose gently against the friar’s side, and then would look into his face with a glance so movingly tender that nothing more could have been added to it for the expression of his love. For his part, Fray Inocencio patiently accommodated the naturally brisk movements of his own stout little legs to the ass’s infinite slowness: when the ass would stop, he would stop also; when by any chance the ass missed sight of a choice bunch of grass, he would lead him to it and would wait by him until he had cropped it to the very last blade; and when the ass by his nose-rubbings would manifest his love, he would gather the ass’s long, shaggy head in his arms against his breast and would lavish upon him all manner of terms of endearment as he gently stroked his fuzzy ears.

So the fame of these two went through all the city; and upon the ass, who truly was as lazy as he was lame, the common people bestowed the name of Flojo, which word, in the Spanish tongue, signifies “the lazy one.” In this wise came the proverb that is spoken of any one who greatly loves a useless beast or person: he loves him as Fray Inocencio loved Flojo, the lame ass.

Over the brothers, dwelling peacefully in their little convent, and serving God by loving his creatures and by ministering faithfully to the welfare of the souls of their fellow-men, the years drifted happily. Unharmed by Timoteo, called Susurro, who waxed fat and sluggish as age stole upon him, yet lost nothing of the sweetness of his nature nor of the thunderousness of his purr, the doves increased and multiplied; the little garden yielded ever freshly its substance of fresh food and sweet-smelling flowers; the ass, Flojo, tenderly cherished by his masters, developed yet greater prodigies of laziness as his years advanced; and the brothers themselves, happy in leading a life in all ways innocent and very excellent in the sight of Heaven, knew not what it was to grow old, because their hearts ever remained young.

And in the fulness of their years, their good lives ended, Fray Antonio and Fray Inocencio passed out gently from time into eternity, and were gathered home to God.