FAR AWAY AND LONG AGO
A HISTORY OF MY EARLY LIFE
BY W. H. HUDSON
Author of "Idle Days In Patagonia," "The Purple Land," "A Crystal Age," "Adventures Among Birds," Etc.
CHAPTER I EARLIEST MEMORIES
Preamble—The house where I was born—The singular ombu tree—A tree without a name—The plain—The ghost of a murdered slave—Our playmate, the old sheep-dog—A first riding-lesson—The cattle: an evening scene—My mother—Captain Scott—The hermit and his awful penance
CHAPTER II MY NEW HOME
We quit our old home—A winter day journey—Aspect of the country—Our new home—A prisoner in the barn—The plantation—A paradise of rats— An evening scene—The people of the house—A beggar on horseback—Mr. Trigg our schoolmaster—His double nature—Impersonates an old woman— Reading Dickens—Mr. Trigg degenerates—Once more a homeless wanderer on the great plain
CHAPTER III DEATH OF AN OLD DOG
The old dog Caesar—His powerful personality—Last days and end—The old dog's burial—The fact of death is brought home to me—A child's mental anguish—My mother comforts me—Limitations of the child's mind—Fear of death—Witnessing the slaughter of cattle—A man in the moat—Margarita, the nursery-maid—Her beauty and lovableness—Her death—I refuse to see her dead
CHAPTER IV THE PLANTATION
Living with trees—Winter violets—The house is made habitable—Red willow—Scizzor-tail and carrion-hawk—Lombardy poplars—Black acacia —Other trees—The fosse or moat—Rats—A trial of strength with an armadillo—Opossums living with a snake—Alfalfa field and butterflies—Cane brake—Weeds and fennel—Peach trees in blossom— Paroquets—Singing of a field finch—Concert-singing in birds—Old John—Cow-birds' singing—Arrival of summer migrants
CHAPTER V ASPECTS OF THE PLAIN
Appearance of a green level land—Cardoon and giant thistles—Villages of the vizcacha, a large burrowing rodent—Groves and plantations seen like islands on the wide level plains—Trees planted by the early colonists—Decline of the colonists from an agricultural to a pastoral people—Houses as part of the landscape—Flesh diet of the gauchos— Summer change in the aspect of the plain—The water-like mirage—The giant thistle and a "thistle year"—Fear of fires—An incident at a fire—The pampero, or south-west wind, and the fall of the thistles —Thistle-down and thistle-seed as food for animals—A great pampero storm—Big hailstones—Damage caused by hail—Zango, an old horse, killed—Zango and his master
CHAPTER VI SOME BIRD ADVENTURES
Visit to a river on the pampas—A first long walk—Water-fowl—My first sight of flamingoes—A great dove visitation—Strange tameness of the birds—Vain attempts at putting salt on their tails—An ethical question: When is a lie not a lie?—The carancho, a vulture-eagle— Our pair of caranchos—Their nest in a peach tree—I am ambitious to take their eggs—The birds' crimes—I am driven off by the birds—The nest pulled down
CHAPTER VII MY FIRST VISIT TO BUENOS AYRES
Happiest time—First visit to the capital—Old and New Buenos Ayres— Vivid impressions—Solitary walk—How I learnt to go alone—Lost—The house we stayed at and the sea-like river—Rough and narrow streets— Rows of posts—Carts and noise—A great church festival—Young men in black and scarlet—River scenes—Washerwomen and their language—Their word-fights with young fashionables—Night watchmen—A young gentleman's pastime—A fishing dog—A fine gentleman seen stoning little birds—A glimpse of Don Eusebio, the Dictator's fool
CHAPTER VIII THE TYRANT'S FALL AND WHAT FOLLOWED
The portraits in our drawing-room—The Dictator Rosas who was like an Englishman—The strange face of his wife, Encarnacion—The traitor Urquiza—The Minister of War, his peacocks and his son—Home again from the city—The war deprives us of our playmate—Natalia, our shepherd's wife—Her son, Medardo—The Alcalde, our grand old man— Battle of Monte Caseros—The defeated army—Demands for fresh horses— In peril—My father's shining defects—His pleasure in a thunderstorm —A childlike trust in his fellow-men—Soldiers turn upon their officer—A refugee given up and murdered—Our Alcalde again—On cutting throats—Ferocity and cynicism—Native blood-lust and its effects on a boy's mind—Feeling about Rosas—A bird poem or tale— Vain search for lost poem and story of its authorship—The Dictator's daughter—Time, the old god
CHAPTER IX OUR NEIGHBOURS AT THE POPLARS
Homes on the great green plain—Making the acquaintance of our neighbours—The attraction of birds—Los Alamos and the old lady of the house—Her treatment of St. Anthony—The strange Barboza family— The man of blood—Great fighters—Barboza as a singer—A great quarrel but no fight—A cattle-marking—Dona Lucia del Ombu—A feast—Barboza sings and is insulted by El Rengo—Refuses to fight—The two kinds of fighters—A poor little angel on horseback—My feeling for Anjelita— Boys unable to express sympathy—A quarrel with a friend—Enduring image of a little girl
CHAPTER X OUR NEAREST ENGLISH NEIGHBOUR
Casa Antigua, our nearest English neighbour's house—Old Lombardy poplars—Cardoon thistle or wild artichoke—Mr. Royd, an English sheep-farmer—Making sheep's-milk cheeses under difficulties—Mr. Royd's native wife—The negro servants—The two daughters: a striking contrast—The white blue-eyed child and her dusky playmate—A happy family—Our visits to Casa Antigua—Gorgeous dinners—Estanislao and his love of wild life—The Royds' return visit—A home-made carriage— The gaucho's primitive conveyance—The happy home broken up
CHAPTER XI A BREEDER OF PIEBALDS
La Tapera, a native estancia—Don Gregorio Gandara—His grotesque appearance and strange laugh—Gandara's wife and her habits and pets— My dislike of hairless dogs—Gandara's daughters—A pet ostrich—In the peach orchard—Gandara's herds of piebald brood mares—His masterful temper—His own saddle-horses—Creating a sensation at gaucho gatherings—The younger daughter's lovers—Her marriage at our house—The priest and the wedding breakfast—Demetria forsaken by her husband
CHAPTER XII THE HEAD OF A DECAYED HOUSE
The Estancia Canada Seca—Low lands and floods—Don Anastacio, a gaucho exquisite—A greatly respected man—Poor relations—Don Anastacio a pig-fancier—Narrow escape from a pig—Charm of the low green lands—The flower called macachina—A sweet-tasting bulb —Beauty of the green flower-sprinkled turf—A haunt of the golden plover—The bolas—My plover-hunting experience—Rebuked by a gaucho—A green spot, our playground in summer and lake in winter—The venomous toad-like Ceratophrys—Vocal performance of the toad-like creature—We make war on them—The great lake battle and its results
CHAPTER XIII A PATRIARCH OF THE PAMPAS
The grand old man of the plains—Don Evaristo Penalva, the Patriarch— My first sight of his estancia house—Don Evaristo described—A husband of six wives—How he was esteemed and loved by every one—On leaving home I lose sight of Don Evaristo—I meet him again after seven years—His failing health—His old first wife and her daughter, Cipriana—The tragedy of Cipriana—Don Evaristo dies and I lose sight of the family
CHAPTER XIV THE DOVECOTE
A favourite climbing tree—The desire to fly—Soaring birds-A peregrine falcon—The dovecote and pigeon-pies—The falcon's depredations—A splendid aerial feat—A secret enemy of the dovecote— A short-eared owl in a loft—My father and birds—A strange flower— The owls' nesting-place—Great owl visitations
CHAPTER XV SERPENT AND CHILD
My pleasure in bird life—Mammals at our new home—Snakes and how children are taught to regard them—A colony of snakes in the house— Their hissing confabulations—Finding serpent sloughs—A serpent's saviour—A brief history of our English neighbours, the Blakes
CHAPTER XVI A SERPENT MYSTERY
A new feeling about snakes—Common snakes of the country—A barren weedy patch—Discovery of a large black snake—Watching for its reappearance—Seen going to its den—The desire to see it again—A vain search—Watching a bat—The black serpent reappears at my feet— Emotions and conjectures—Melanism—My baby sister and a strange snake—The mystery solved
CHAPTER XVII A BOY'S ANIMISM
The animistic faculty and its survival in us—A boy's animism and its persistence—Impossibility of seeing our past exactly as it was—Serge Aksakoff's history of his childhood—The child's delight in nature purely physical—First intimations of animism in the child—How it affected me—Feeling with regard to flowers—A flower and my mother —History of a flower—Animism with regard to trees—Locust trees by moonlight—Animism and nature-worship—Animistic emotion not uncommon —Cowper and the Yardley oak—The religionist's fear of nature— Pantheistic Christianity—Survival of nature-worship in England— The feeling for nature—Wordsworth's pantheism and animistic emotion in poetry
CHAPTER XVIII THE NEW SCHOOLMASTER
Mr. Trigg recalled—His successor—Father O'Keefe—His mild rule and love of angling—My brother is assisted in his studies by the priest— Happy fishing afternoons—The priest leaves us—How he had been working out his own salvation—We run wild once more—My brother's plan for a journal to be called The Tin Box—Our imperious editor's exactions—My little brother revolts—The Tin Box smashed up—The loss it was to me
CHAPTER XIX BROTHERS
Our third and last schoolmaster—His many accomplishments—His weakness and final breakdown—My important brother—Four brothers, unlike in everything except the voice—A strange meeting—Jack the Killer, his life and character—A terrible fight—My brother seeks instructions from Jack—The gaucho's way of fighting and Jack's contrasted—Our sham fight with knives—A wound and the result—My feeling about Jack and his eyes—Bird-lore—My two elder brothers' practical joke
CHAPTER XX BIRDING IN THE MARSHES
Visiting the marshes—Pajonales and juncales—Abundant bird life—A coots' metropolis—Frightening the coots—Grebe and painted snipe colonies—The haunt of the social marsh hawk—The beautiful jacana and its eggs—The colony of marsh trupials—The bird's music—The aquatic plant durasmillo—The trupial's nest and eggs—Recalling a beauty that has vanished—Our games with gaucho boys—I am injured by a bad boy—The shepherd's advice—Getting my revenge in a treacherous manner—Was it right or wrong?—The game of hunting the ostrich
CHAPTER XXI WILD-FOWLING ADVENTURES
My sporting brother and the armoury—I attend him on his shooting expeditions—Adventure with golden plover—A morning after wild duck— Our punishment—I learn to shoot—My first gun—My first wild duck—My ducking tactics—My gun's infirmities—Duck-shooting with a blunderbuss—Ammunition runs out—An adventure with rosy-bill duck— Coarse gunpowder and home-made shot—The war danger comes our way—We prepare to defend the house—The danger over and my brother leaves home
CHAPTER XXII BOYHOOD'S END
The book—The Saladero, or killing-grounds, and their smell—Walls built of bullocks' skulls—A pestilential city—River water and Aljibe water—Days of lassitude—Novel scenes—Home again—Typhus—My first day out—Birthday reflections—What I asked of life—A boy's mind—A brother's resolution—End of our thousand and one nights—A reading spell—My boyhood ends in disaster
CHAPTER XXIII A DARKENED LIFE
A severe illness—Case pronounced hopeless—How it affected me— Religious doubts and a mind distressed—Lawless thoughts—Conversation with an old gaucho about religion—George Combe and the desire for immortality
CHAPTER XXIV LOSS AND GAIN
The soul's loneliness—My mother and her death—A mother's love for her son—Her character—Anecdotes—A mystery and a revelation—The autumnal migration of birds—Moonlight vigils—My absent brother's return—He introduces me to Darwin's works—A new philosophy of life— Conclusion
Preamble—The house where I was born—The singular Ombu tree—A tree without a name—The plain—The ghost of a murdered slave—Our playmate, the old sheep-dog—A first riding-lesson—The cattle: an evening scene—My mother—Captain Scott—The hermit and his awful penance.
It was never my intention to write an autobiography. Since I took to writing in my middle years I have, from time to time, related some incident of my boyhood, and these are contained in various chapters in The Naturalist in La Plata, Birds and Man, Adventures among Birds, and other works, also in two or three magazine articles: all this material would have been kept back if I had contemplated such a book as this. When my friends have asked me in recent years why I did not write a history of my early life on the pampas, my answer was that I had already told all that was worth telling in these books. And I really believed it was so; for when a person endeavours to recall his early life in its entirety he finds it is not possible: he is like one who ascends a hill to survey the prospect before him on a day of heavy cloud and shadow, who sees at a distance, now here, now there, some feature in the landscape—hill or wood or tower or spire—touched and made conspicuous by a transitory sunbeam while all else remains in obscurity. The scenes, people, events we are able by an effort to call up do not present themselves in order; there is no order, no sequence or regular progression—nothing, in fact, but isolated spots or patches, brightly illumined and vividly seen, in the midst of a wide shrouded mental landscape.
It is easy to fall into the delusion that the few things thus distinctly remembered and visualized are precisely those which were most important in our life, and on that account were saved by memory while all the rest has been permanently blotted out. That is indeed how our memory serves and fools us; for at some period of a man's life—at all events of some lives—in some rare state of the mind, it is all at once revealed to him as by a miracle that nothing is ever blotted out.
It was through falling into some such state as that, during which I had a wonderfully clear and continuous vision of the past, that I was tempted—forced I may say—to write this account of my early years. I will relate the occasion, as I imagine that the reader who is a psychologist will find as much to interest him in this incident as in anything else contained in the book.
I was feeling weak and depressed when I came down from London one November evening to the south coast: the sea, the clear sky, the bright colours of the afterglow kept me too long on the front in an east wind in that low condition, with the result that I was laid up for six weeks with a very serious illness. Yet when it was over I looked back on those six weeks as a happy time! Never had I thought so little of physical pain. Never had I felt confinement less—I who feel, when I am out of sight of living, growing grass, and out of sound of birds' voices and all rural sounds, that I am not properly alive!
On the second day of my illness, during an interval of comparative ease, I fell into recollections of my childhood, and at once I had that far, that forgotten past with me again as I had never previously had it. It was not like that mental condition, known to most persons, when some sight or sound or, more frequently, the perfume of some flower, associated with our early life, restores the past suddenly and so vividly that it is almost an illusion. That is an intensely emotional condition and vanishes as quickly as it comes. This was different. To return to the simile and metaphor used at the beginning, it was as if the cloud shadows and haze had passed away and the entire wide prospect beneath me made clearly visible. Over it all my eyes could range at will, choosing this or that point to dwell on, to examine it in all its details; and, in the case of some person known to me as a child, to follow his life till it ended or passed from sight; then to return to the same point again to repeat the process with other lives and resume my rambles in the old familiar haunts.
What a happiness it would be, I thought, in spite of discomfort and pain and danger, if this vision would continue! It was not to be expected; nevertheless it did not vanish, and on the second day I set myself to try and save it from the oblivion which would presently cover it again. Propped up with pillows I began with pencil and writing-pad to put it down in some sort of order, and went on with it at intervals during the whole six weeks of my confinement, and in this way produced the first rough draft of the book.
And all this time I never ceased wondering at my own mental state; I thought of it when, quickly tired, my trembling fingers dropped the pencil; or when I woke from uneasy sleep to find the vision still before me, inviting, insistently calling to me, to resume my childish rambles and adventures of long ago in that strange world where I first saw the light.
It was to me a marvellous experience; to be here, propped up with pillows in a dimly-lighted room, the night-nurse idly dosing by the fire; the sound of the everlasting wind in my ears, howling outside and dashing the rain like hailstones against the window-panes; to be awake to all this, feverish and ill and sore, conscious of my danger too, and at the same time to be thousands of miles away, out in the sun and wind, rejoicing in other sights and sounds, happy again with that ancient long-lost and now recovered happiness!
During the three years that have passed since I had that strange experience, I have from time to time, when in the mood, gone back to the book and have had to cut it down a good deal and to reshape it, as in the first draft it would have made too long and formless a history.
The house where I was born, on the South American pampas, was quaintly named Los Veinte-cinco Ombues, which means "The Twenty-five Ombu Trees," there being just twenty-five of these indigenous trees— gigantic in size, and standing wide apart in a row about 400 yards long. The ombu is a very singular tree indeed, and being the only representative of tree-vegetation, natural to the soil, on those great level plains, and having also many curious superstitions connected with it, it is a romance in itself. It belongs to the rare Phytolacca family, and has an immense girth—forty or fifty feet in some cases; at the same time the wood is so soft and spongy that it can be cut into with a knife, and is utterly unfit for firewood, for when cut up it refuses to dry, but simply rots away like a ripe water-melon. It also grows slowly, and its leaves, which are large, glossy and deep green, like laurel leaves, are poisonous; and because of its uselessness it will probably become extinct, like the graceful pampas grass in the same region. In this exceedingly practical age men quickly lay the axe at the root of things which, in their view, only cumber the ground; but before other trees had been planted the antiquated and grand-looking ombu had its uses; it served as a gigantic landmark to the traveller on the great monotonous plains, and also afforded refreshing shade to man and horse in summer; while the native doctor or herbalist would sometimes pluck a leaf for a patient requiring a very violent remedy for his disorder. Our trees were about a century old and very large, and, as they stood on an elevation, they could be easily seen at a distance of ten miles. At noon in summer the cattle and sheep, of which we had a large number, used to rest in their shade; one large tree also afforded us children a splendid play- house, and we used to carry up a number of planks to construct safe bridges from branch to branch, and at noon, when our elders were sleeping their siesta, we would have our arboreal games unmolested.
Besides the famous twenty-five, there was one other tree of a different species, growing close to the house, and this was known all over the neighbourhood as "The Tree," this proud name having been bestowed on it because it was the only one of the kind known in that part of the country; our native neighbours always affirmed that it was the only one in the world. It was a fine large old tree, with a white bark, long smooth white thorns, and dark-green undeciduous foliage. Its blossoming time was in November—a month about as hot as an English July—and it would then become covered with tassels of minute wax-like flowers, pale straw-colour, and of a wonderful fragrance, which the soft summer wind would carry for miles on its wings. And in this way our neighbours would discover that the flowering season had come to the tree they so much admired, and they would come to beg for a branch to take home with them to perfume their lowly houses.
The pampas are, in most places, level as a billiard-table; just where we lived, however, the country happened to be undulating, and our house stood on the summit of one of the highest elevations. Before the house stretched a great grassy plain, level to the horizon, while at the back it sloped abruptly down to a broad, deep stream, which emptied itself in the river Plata, about six miles to the east. This stream, with its three ancient red willow-trees growing on the banks, was a source of endless pleasure to us. Whenever we went down to play on the banks, the fresh penetrating scent of the moist earth had a strangely exhilarating effect, making us wild with joy. I am able now to recall these sensations, and believe that the sense of smell, which seems to diminish as we grow older, until it becomes something scarcely worthy of being called a sense, is nearly as keen in little children as in the inferior animals, and, when they live with nature, contributes as much to their pleasure as sight or hearing. I have often observed that small children, when brought on to low, moist ground from a high level, give loose to a sudden spontaneous gladness, running, shouting, and rolling over the grass just like dogs, and I have no doubt that the fresh smell of the earth is the cause of their joyous excitement.
Our house was a long low structure, built of brick, and, being very old, naturally had the reputation of being haunted. A former proprietor, half a century before I was born, once had among his slaves a very handsome young negro, who, on account of his beauty and amiability, was a special favourite with his mistress. Her preference filled his poor silly brains with dreams and aspirations, and, deceived by her gracious manner, he one day ventured to approach her in the absence of his master and told her his feelings. She could not forgive so terrible an insult to her pride, and when her husband returned went to him, white with indignation, and told him how this miserable slave had abused their kindness. The husband had an implacable heart, and at his command the offender was suspended by the wrists to a low, horizontal branch of "The Tree," and there, in sight of his master and mistress, he was scourged to death by his fellow- slaves. His battered body was then taken down and buried in a deep hollow at some little distance from the last of the long row of ombu trees. It was the ghost of this poor black, whose punishment had been so much heavier than his offence deserved, that was supposed to haunt the place. It was not, however, a conventional ghost, stalking about in a white sheet; those who had seen it averred that it invariably rose up from the spot where the body had been buried, like a pale, luminous exhalation from the earth, and, assuming a human shape, floated slowly towards the house, and roamed about the great trees, or, seating itself on an old projecting root, would remain motionless for hours in a dejected attitude. I never saw it.
Our constant companion and playmate in those days was a dog, whose portrait has never faded from remembrance, for he was a dog with features and a personality which impressed themselves deeply on the mind. He came to us in a rather mysterious manner. One summer evening the shepherd was galloping round the flock, and trying by means of much shouting to induce the lazy sheep to move homewards. A strange- looking lame dog suddenly appeared on the scene, as if it had dropped from the clouds, and limping briskly after the astonished and frightened sheep, drove them straight home and into the fold; and, after thus earning his supper and showing what stuff was in him, he established himself at the house, where he was well received. He was a good-sized animal, with a very long body, a smooth black coat, tan feet, muzzle, and "spectacles," and a face of extraordinary length, which gave him a profoundly-wise baboon-like expression. One of his hind legs had been broken or otherwise injured, so that he limped and shuffled along in a peculiar lopsided fashion; he had no tail, and his ears had been cropped close to his head: altogether he was like an old soldier returned from the wars, where he had received many hard knocks, besides having had sundry portions of his anatomy shot away.
No name to fit this singular canine visitor could be found, although he responded readily enough to the word Pechicho, which is used to call any unnamed pup by, like pussy for a cat. So it came to pass that this word pechicho—equivalent to "doggie" in English—stuck to him for only name until the end of the chapter; and the end was that, after spending some years with us, he mysteriously disappeared.
He very soon proved to us that he understood children as well as sheep; at all events he would allow them to tease and pull him about most unmercifully, and actually appeared to enjoy it. Our first riding-lessons were taken on his back; but old Pechicho eventually made one mistake, after which he was relieved from the labour of carrying us. When I was about four years old, my two elder brothers, in the character of riding-masters, set me on his back, and, in order to test my capacity for sticking on under difficulties, they rushed away, calling him. The old dog, infected with the pretended excitement, bounded after them, and I was thrown and had my leg broken, for, as the poet says—
Children, they are very little, And their bones are very brittle.
Luckily their little brittle bones quickly solder, and it did not take me long to recover from the effects of this mishap.
No doubt my canine steed was as much troubled as any one at the accident. I seem to see the wise old fellow now, sitting in that curious one-sided fashion he had acquired so as to rest his lame leg, his mouth opened to a kind of immense smile, and his brown benevolent eyes regarding us with just such an expression as one sees in a faithful old negress nursing a flock of troublesome white children—so proud and happy to be in charge of the little ones of a superior race!
All that I remember of my early life at this place comes between the ages of three or four and five; a period which, to the eye of memory, appears like a wide plain blurred over with a low-lying mist, with here and there a group of trees, a house, a hill, or other large object, standing out in the clear air with marvellous distinctness. The picture that most often presents itself is of the cattle coming home in the evening; the green quiet plain extending away from the gate to the horizon; the western sky flushed with sunset hues, and the herd of four or five hundred cattle trotting homewards with loud lowings and bellowings, raising a great cloud of dust with their hoofs, while behind gallop the herdsmen urging them on with wild cries. Another picture is of my mother at the close of the day, when we children, after our supper of bread and milk, join in a last grand frolic on the green before the house. I see her sitting out of doors watching our sport with a smile, her book lying in her lap, and the last rays of the setting sun shining on her face.
When I think of her I remember with gratitude that our parents seldom or never punished us, and never, unless we went too far in our domestic dissensions or tricks, even chided us. This, I am convinced, is the right attitude for parents to observe, modestly to admit that nature is wiser than they are, and to let their little ones follow, as far as possible, the bent of their own minds, or whatever it is they have in place of minds. It is the attitude of the sensible hen towards her ducklings, when she has had frequent experience of their incongruous ways, and is satisfied that they know best what is good for them; though, of course, their ways seem peculiar to her, and she can never entirely sympathize with their fancy for going into water. I need not be told that the hen is after all only step-mother to her ducklings, since I am contending that the civilized woman—the artificial product of our self-imposed conditions—cannot have the same relation to her offspring as the uncivilized woman really has to hers. The comparison, therefore, holds good, the mother with us being practically step-mother to children of another race; and if she is sensible, and amenable to nature's teaching, she will attribute their seemingly unsuitable ways and appetites to the right cause, and not to a hypothetical perversity or inherent depravity of heart, about which many authors will have spoken to her in many books:
But though they wrote it all by rote They did not write it right.
Of all the people outside of the domestic circle known to me in those days, two individuals only are distinctly remembered. They were certainly painted by memory in very strong unfading colours, so that now they seem to stand like living men in a company of pale phantom forms. This is probably due to the circumstance that they were considerably more grotesque in appearance than the others, like old Pechicho among our dogs—all now forgotten save him.
One was an Englishman named Captain Scott, who used to visit us occasionally for a week's shooting or fishing, for he was a great sportsman. We were all extremely fond of him, for he was one of those simple men that love and sympathize with children; besides that, he used to come to us from some distant wonderful place where sugar-plums were made, and to our healthy appetites, unaccustomed to sweets of any description, these things tasted like an angelic kind of food. He was an immense man, with a great round face of a purplish-red colour, like the sun setting in glory, and surrounded with a fringe of silvery- white hair and whiskers, standing out like the petals round the disc of a sunflower. It was always a great time when Captain Scott arrived, and while he alighted from his horse we would surround him with loud demonstrations of welcome, eager for the treasures which made his pockets bulge out on all sides. When he went out gunning he always remembered to shoot a hawk or some strangely-painted bird for us; it was even better when he went fishing, for then he took us with him, and while he stood motionless on the bank, rod in hand, looking, in the light-blue suit he always wore, like a vast blue pillar crowned with that broad red face, we romped on the sward, and revelled in the dank fragrance of the earth and rushes.
I have not the faintest notion of who Captain Scott was, or of what he was ever captain, or whether residence in a warm climate or hard drinking had dyed his broad countenance with that deep magenta red, nor of how and when he finished his earthly career; for when we moved away the huge purple-faced strange-looking man dropped for ever out of our lives; yet in my mind how beautiful his gigantic image looks! And to this day I bless his memory for all the sweets he gave me, in a land where sweets were scarce, and for his friendliness to me when I was a very small boy.
The second well-remembered individual was also only an occasional visitor at our house, and was known all over the surrounding country as the Hermit, for his name was never discovered. He was perpetually on the move, visiting in turn every house within a radius of forty or fifty miles; and once about every seven or eight weeks he called on us to receive a few articles of food—enough for the day's consumption. Money he always refused with gestures of intense disgust, and he would also decline cooked meat and broken bread. When hard biscuits were given him, he would carefully examine them, and if one was found chipped or cracked he would return it, pointing out the defect, and ask for a sound one in return. He had a small, sun-parched face, and silvery long hair; but his features were fine, his teeth white and even, his eyes clear grey and keen as a falcon's. There was always a set expression of deep mental anguish on his face, intensified with perhaps a touch of insanity, which made it painful to look at him. As he never accepted money or anything but food, he of course made his own garments—and what garments they were! Many years ago I used to see, strolling about St. James's Park, a huge hairy gentleman, with a bludgeon in his hand, and clothed with a bear's skin to which the head and paws were attached. It may be that this eccentric individual is remembered by some of my readers, but I assure them that he was quite a St. James's Park dandy compared with my hermit. He wore a pair of gigantic shoes, about a foot broad at the toes, made out of thick cow- hide with the hair on; and on his head was a tall rimless cow-hide hat shaped like an inverted flower-pot. His bodily covering was, however, the most extraordinary: the outer garment, if garment it can be called, resembled a very large mattress in size and shape, with the ticking made of innumerable pieces of raw hide sewn together. It was about a foot in thickness and stuffed with sticks, stones, hard lumps of clay, rams' horns, bleached bones, and other hard heavy objects; it was fastened round him with straps of hide, and reached nearly to the ground. The figure he made in this covering was most horribly uncouth and grotesque, and his periodical visits used to throw us into a great state of excitement. And as if this awful burden with which he had saddled himself—enough to have crushed down any two ordinary men—was not sufficient, he had weighted the heavy stick used to support his steps with a great ball at the end, also with a large circular bell- shaped object surrounding the middle. On arriving at the house, where the dogs would become frantic with terror and rage at sight of him, he would stand resting himself for eight or ten minutes; then in a strange language, which might have been Hebrew or Sanscrit, for there was no person learned enough in the country to understand it, he would make a long speech or prayer in a clear ringing voice, intoning his words in a monotonous sing-song. His speech done, he would beg, in broken Spanish, for the usual charity; and, after receiving it, he would commence another address, possibly invoking blessings of all kinds on the donor, and lasting an unconscionable time. Then, bidding a ceremonious farewell, he would take his departure.
From the sound of certain oft-recurring expressions in his recitations we children called him "Con-stair Lo-vair"; perhaps some clever pundit will be able to tell me what these words mean—the only fragment saved of the hermit's mysterious language. It was commonly reported that he had at one period of his life committed some terrible crime, and that, pursued by the phantoms of remorse, he had fled to this distant region, where he would never be met and denounced by any former companion, and had adopted his singular mode of life by way of penance. This was, of course, mere conjecture, for nothing could be extracted from him. When closely questioned or otherwise interfered with, then old Con-stair Lo-vair would show that his long cruel penance had not yet banished the devil from his heart. A terrible wrath would disfigure his countenance and kindle his eyes with demoniac fire; and in sharp ringing tones, that wounded like strokes, he would pour forth a torrent of words in his unknown language, doubtless invoking every imaginable curse on his tormentor.
For upwards of twenty years after I as a small child made his acquaintance he continued faithfully pursuing his dreary rounds, exposed to cold and rain in winter and to the more trying heats of summer; until at last he was discovered lying dead on the plain, wasted by old age and famine to a mere skeleton, and even in death still crushed down with that awful burden he had carried for so many years. Thus, consistent to the end, and with his secret untold to any sympathetic human soul, perished poor old Con-stair Lo-vair, the strangest of all strange beings I have met with in my journey through life.
MY NEW HOME
We quit our old home—A winter day journey—Aspect of the country—Our new home—A prisoner in the barn—The plantation—A paradise of rats— An evening scene—The people of the house—A beggar on horseback—Mr. Trigg our schoolmaster—His double nature—Impersonates an old woman— Reading Dickens—Mr. Trigg degenerates—Once more a homeless wanderer on the great plain.
The incidents and impressions recorded in the preceding chapter relate, as I have said, to the last year or two of my five years of life in the place of my birth. Further back my memory refuses to take me. Some wonderful persons go back to their second or even their first year; I can't, and could only tell from hearsay what I was and did up to the age of three. According to all accounts, the clouds of glory I brought into the world—a habit of smiling at everything I looked at and at every person that approached me—ceased to be visibly trailed at about that age; I only remember myself as a common little boy—just a little wild animal running about on its hind legs, amazingly interested in the world in which it found itself.
Here, then, I begin, aged five, at an early hour on a bright, cold morning in June—midwinter in that southern country of great plains or pampas; impatiently waiting for the loading and harnessing to be finished; then the being lifted to the top with the other little ones —at that time we were five; finally, the grand moment when the start was actually made with cries and much noise of stamping and snorting of horses and rattling of chains. I remember a good deal of that long journey, which began at sunrise and ended between the lights some time after sunset; for it was my very first, and I was going out into the unknown. I remember how, at the foot of the slope at the top of which the old home stood, we plunged into the river, and there was more noise and shouting and excitement until the straining animals brought us safely out on the other side. Gazing back, the low roof of the house was lost to view before long, but the trees—the row of twenty- five giant ombu-trees which gave the place its name—were visible, blue in the distance, until we were many miles on our way.
The undulating country had been left behind; before us and on both sides the land, far as one could see, was absolutely flat, everywhere green with the winter grass, but flowerless at that season, and with the gleam of water, over the whole expanse. It had been a season of great rains, and much of the flat country had been turned into shallow lakes. That was all there was to see, except the herds of cattle and horses and an occasional horseman galloping over the plain, and the sight at long distances of a grove or small plantation of trees, marking the site of an estancia, or sheep and cattle farm, these groves appearing like islands on the sea-like flat country. At length this monotonous landscape faded and vanished quite away, and the lowing of cattle and tremulous bleating of sheep died out of hearing, so that the last leagues were a blank to me, and I only came back to my senses when it was dark and they lifted me down, so stiff with cold and drowsy that I could hardly stand on my feet.
Next morning I found myself in a new and strange world. The house to my childish eyes appeared of vast size: it consisted of a long range of rooms on the ground, built of brick, with brick floors and roof thatched with rushes. The rooms at one end, fronting the road, formed a store, where the people of the surrounding country came to buy and sell, and what they brought to sell was "the produce of the country"— hides and wool and tallow in bladders, horsehair in sacks, and native cheeses. In return they could purchase anything they wanted-knives, spurs, rings for horse-gear, clothing, yerba mate and sugar; tobacco, castor-oil, salt and pepper, and oil and vinegar, and such furniture as they required—iron pots, spits for roasting, cane-chairs, and coffins. A little distance from the house were the kitchen, bakery, dairy, huge barns for storing the produce, and wood-piles big as houses, the wood being nothing but stalks of the cardoon thistle or wild artichoke, which burns like paper, so that immense quantities had to be collected to supply fuel for a large establishment.
Two of the smallest of us were handed over to the care of a sharp little native boy, aged about nine or ten years, who was told to take us out of the way and keep us amused. The first place he took us to was the great barn, the door of which stood open; it was nearly empty just then, and was the biggest interior I had ever seen; how big it really was I don't know, but it seemed to me about as big as Olympia or the Agricultural Hall, or the Crystal Palace would be to any ordinary little London boy. No sooner were we in this vast place than we saw a strange and startling thing—a man, sitting or crouching on the floor, his hands before him, the wrists tied together, his body bound with thongs of raw hide to a big post which stood in the centre of the floor and supported the beam of the loft above. He was a young man, not more than twenty perhaps, with black hair and a smooth, pale, sallow face. His eyes were cast down, and he paid no attention to us, standing there staring at him, and he appeared to be suffering or ill. After a few moments I shrank away to the door and asked our conductor in a frightened whisper why he was tied up to a post there. Our native boy seemed to be quite pleased at the effect on us, and answered cheerfully that he was a murderer—he had committed a murder somewhere, and had been caught last evening, but as it was too late to take him to the lock-up at the village, which was a long distance away, they had brought him here as the most convenient place, and tied him in the barn to keep him safe. Later on they would come and take him away.
Murder was a common word in those days, but I had not at that time grasped its meaning; I had seen no murder done, nor any person killed in a fight; I only knew that it must be something wicked and horrible. Nevertheless, the shock I had received passed away in the course of that first morning in a new world; but what I had seen in the barn was not forgotten: the image of that young man tied to the post, his bent head and downward gaze, and ghastly face shaded by lank black hair, is as plain to me now as if I had seen him but yesterday.
A little back from the buildings were gardens and several acres of plantation—both shade and fruit trees. Viewed from the outside, it all looked like an immense poplar grove, on account of the double rows of tall Lombardy poplar trees at the borders. The whole ground, including the buildings, was surrounded by an immense ditch or moat.
Up till now I had lived without trees, with the exception of those twenty-five I have spoken of, which formed a landmark for all the country round; so that this great number—hundreds and thousands—of trees was a marvel and delight. But the plantation and what it was to me will form the subject of a chapter by itself. It was a paradise of rats, as I very soon discovered. Our little native guide and instructor was full of the subject, and promised to let us see the rats with our own eyes as soon as the sun went down; that would finish the day of strange sights with the strangest of all.
Accordingly, when the time came he led us to a spot beyond the barns and wood-piles, where all the offal of slaughtered animals, bones, and unconsumed meats from the kitchen, and rubbish from a wasteful, disorderly establishment, were cast out each day. Here we all sat down in a row on a log among the dead weeds on the border of the evil- smelling place, and he told us to be very still and speak no word; for, said he, unless we move or make a sound the rats will not heed us; they will regard us as so many wooden images. And so it proved, for very soon after the sun had gone down we began to see rats stealing out of the woodpile and from the dead weeds on every side, all converging to that one spot where a generous table was spread for them and for the brown carrion hawks that came by day. Big, old, grey rats with long, scaly tails, others smaller, and smaller still, the least of all being little bigger than mice, until the whole place swarmed with them, all busily hunting for food, feeding, squealing, fighting, and biting. I had not known that the whole world contained so many rats as I now saw congregated before me.
Suddenly our guide jumped up and loudly clapped his hands, which produced a curious effect—a short, sharp little shriek of terror from the busy multitude, followed by absolute stillness, every rat frozen to stone, which lasted for a second or two; then a swift scuttling away in all directions, vanishing with a rustling sound through the dead grass and wood.
It had been a fine spectacle, and we enjoyed it amazingly; it raised Mus decumanus to a beast of immense importance in my mind. Soon he became even more important in an unpleasant way when it was discovered that rats were abundant indoors as well as out. The various noises they made at night were terrifying; they would run over our beds and sometimes we would wake up to find that one had got in between the sheets and was trying frantically to get out. Then we would yell, and half the house would be roused and imagine some dreadful thing. But when they found out the cause, they would only laugh at and rebuke us for being such poor little cowards.
But what an astonishing place was this to which we had come! The great house and many buildings and the people in it, the foss, the trees that enchanted me, the dirt and disorder, vile rats and fleas and pests of all sorts! The place had been for some years in the hands of a Spanish or native family—indolent, careless, happy-go-lucky people. The husband and wife were never in harmony or agreement about anything for five minutes together, and by and by he would go away to the capital "on business," which would keep him from home for weeks, and even months, at a stretch. And she, with three light-headed, grown-up daughters, would be left to run the establishment with half-a-dozen hired men and women to assist her. I remember her well, as she stayed on a few days in order to hand over the place to us—an excessively fat, inactive woman, who sat most of the day in an easy-chair, surrounded by her pets—lap-dogs, Amazon parrots, and several shrieking parakeets.
Before many days she left, with all her noisy crowd of dogs and birds and daughters, and of the events of the succeeding days and weeks nothing remains in memory except one exceedingly vivid impression—my first sight of a beggar on horseback. It was by no means an uncommon sight in those days when, as the gauchos were accustomed to say, a man without a horse was a man without legs; but it was new to me when one morning I saw a tall man on a tall horse ride up to our gate, accompanied by a boy of nine or ten on a pony. I was struck with the man's singular appearance, sitting upright and stiff in his saddle, staring straight before him. He had long grey hair and beard, and wore a tall straw hat shaped like an inverted flower-pot, with a narrow brim—a form of hat which had lately gone out of fashion among the natives but was still used by a few. Over his clothes he wore a red cloak or poncho, and heavy iron spurs on his feet, which were cased in the botas de potro, or long stockings made of a colt's untanned hide.
Arrived at the gate he shouted Ave Maria purissima in a loud voice, then proceeded to give an account of himself, informing us that he was a blind man and obliged to subsist on the charity of his neighbours. They in their turn, he said, in providing him with all he required were only doing good to themselves, seeing that those who showed the greatest compassion towards their afflicted fellow-creatures were regarded with special favour by the Powers above.
After delivering himself of all this and much more as if preaching a sermon, he was assisted from his horse and led by the hand to the front door, after which the boy drew back and folding his arms across his breast stared haughtily at us children and the others who had congregated at the spot. Evidently he was proud of his position as page or squire or groom of the important person in the tall straw hat, red cloak, and iron spurs, who galloped about the land collecting tribute from the people and talking loftily about the Powers above.
Asked what he required at our hands the beggar replied that he wanted yerba mate, sugar, bread, and some hard biscuits, also cut tobacco and paper for cigarettes and some leaf tobacco for cigars. When all these things had been given him, he was asked (not ironically) if there was anything else we could supply him with, and he replied, Yes, he was still in want of rice, flour, and farina, an onion or two, a head or two of garlic, also salt, pepper, and pimento, or red pepper. And when he had received all these comestibles and felt them safely packed in his saddle-bags, he returned thanks, bade good-bye in the most dignified manner, and was led back by the haughty little boy to his tall horse.
We had been settled some months in our new home, and I was just about half way through my sixth year, when one morning at breakfast we children were informed to our utter dismay that we could no longer be permitted to run absolutely wild; that a schoolmaster had been engaged who would live in the house and would have us in the schoolroom during the morning and part of the afternoon.
Our hearts were heavy in us that day, while we waited apprehensively for the appearance of the man who would exercise such a tremendous power over us and would stand between us and our parents, especially our mother, who had ever been our shield and refuge from all pains and troubles. Up till now they had acted on the principle that children were best left to themselves, that the more liberty they had the better it was for them. Now it almost looked as if they were turning against us; but we knew that it could not be so—we knew that every slightest pain or grief that touched us was felt more keenly by our mother than by ourselves, and we were compelled to believe her when she told us that she, too, lamented the restraint that would be put upon us, but knew that it would be for our ultimate good.
And on that very afternoon the feared man arrived, Mr. Trigg by name, an Englishman, a short, stoutish, almost fat little man, with grey hair, clean-shaved sunburnt face, a crooked nose which had been broken or was born so, clever mobile mouth, and blue-grey eyes with a humorous twinkle in them and crow's-feet at the corners. Only to us youngsters, as we soon discovered, that humorous face and the twinkling eyes were capable of a terrible sternness. He was loved, I think, by adults generally, and regarded with feelings of an opposite nature by children. For he was a schoolmaster who hated and despised teaching as much as children in the wild hated to be taught. He followed teaching because all work was excessively irksome to him, yet he had to do something for a living, and this was the easiest thing he could find to do. How such a man ever came to be so far from home in a half-civilized country was a mystery, but there he was, a bachelor and homeless man after twenty or thirty years on the pampas, with little or no money in his pocket, and no belongings except his horse—he never owned more than one at a time—and its cumbrous native saddle, and the saddle-bags in which he kept his wardrobe and whatever he possessed besides. He didn't own a box. On his horse, with his saddle- bags behind him, he would journey about the land, visiting all the English, Scotch, and Irish settlers, who were mostly sheep-farmers, but religiously avoiding the houses of the natives. With the natives he could not affiliate, and not properly knowing and incapable of understanding them he regarded them with secret dislike and suspicion. And by and by he would find a house where there were children old enough to be taught their letters, and Mr. Trigg would be hired by the month, like a shepherd or cowherd, to teach them, living with the family. He would go on very well for a time, his failings being condoned for the sake of the little ones; but by and by there would be a falling-out, and Mr. Trigg would saddle his horse, buckle on the saddle-bags, and ride forth over the wide plain in quest of a new home. With us he made an unusually long stay; he liked good living and comforts generally, and at the same time he was interested in the things of the mind, which had no place in the lives of the British settlers of that period; and now he found himself in a very comfortable house, where there were books to read and people to converse with who were not quite like the rude sheep- and cattle- farmers he had been accustomed to live with. He was on his best behaviour, and no doubt strove hard and not unsuccessfully to get the better of his weaknesses. He was looked on as a great acquisition, and made much of; in the school-room he was a tyrant, and having been forbidden to punish us by striking, he restrained himself when to thrash us would have been an immense relief to him. But pinching was not striking, and he would pinch our ears until they almost bled. It was a poor punishment and gave him little satisfaction, but it had to serve. Out of school his temper would change as by magic. He was then the life of the house, a delightful talker with an inexhaustible fund of good stories, a good reader, mimic, and actor as well.
One afternoon we had a call from a quaint old Scotch dame, in a queer dress, sunbonnet, and spectacles, who introduced herself as the wife of Sandy Maclachlan, a sheep-farmer who lived about twenty-five miles away. It wasn't right, she said, that such near neighbours should not know one another, so she had ridden those few leagues to find out what we were like. Established at the tea-table, she poured out a torrent of talk in broadest Scotch, in her high-pitched cracked old-woman's voice, and gave us an intimate domestic history of all the British residents of the district. It was all about what delightful people they were, and how even their little weaknesses—their love of the bottle, their meannesses, their greed and low cunning—only served to make them more charming. Never was there such a funny old dame or one more given to gossip and scandal-mongering! Then she took herself off, and presently we children, still under her spell, stole out to watch her departure from the gate. But she was not there—she had vanished unaccountably; and by and by what was our astonishment and disgust to hear that the old Scotch body was none other than our own Mr. Trigg! That our needle-sharp eyes, concentrated for an hour on her face, had failed to detect the master who was so painfully familiar to us seemed like a miracle.
Mr. Trigg confessed that play-acting was one of the things he had done before quitting his country; but it was only one of a dozen or twenty vocations which he had taken up at various times, only to drop them again as soon as he made the discovery that they one and all entailed months and even years of hard work if he was ever to fulfil his ambitious desire of doing and being something great in the world. As a reader he certainly was great, and every evening, when the evenings were long, he would give a two hours' reading to the household. Dickens was then the most popular writer in the world, and he usually read Dickens, to the delight of his listeners. Here he could display his histrionic qualities to the full. He impersonated every character in the book, endowing him with voice, gestures, manner, and expression that fitted him perfectly. It was more like a play than a reading.
"What should we do without Mr. Trigg?" our elders were accustomed to say; but we little ones, remembering that it would not be the beneficent countenance of Mr. Pickwick that would look on us in the schoolroom on the following morning, only wished that Mr. Trigg was far, far away.
Perhaps they made too much of him: at all events he fell into the habit of going away every Saturday morning and not returning until the following Monday. His week-end visit was always to some English or Scotch neighbour, a sheep-farmer, ten or fifteen or twenty miles distant, where the bottle or demi-john of white Brazilian rum was always on the table. It was the British exile's only substitute for his dear lost whisky in that far country. At home there was only tea and coffee to drink. From these outings he would return on Monday morning, quite sober and almost too dignified in manner, but with inflamed eyes and (in the schoolroom) the temper of a devil. On one of these occasions, something—our stupidity perhaps, or an exceptionally bad headache—tried him beyond endurance, and taking down his revenque, or native horse-whip made of raw hide, from the wall, he began laying about him with such extraordinary fury that the room was quickly in an uproar. Then all at once my mother appeared on the scene, and the tempest was stilled, though the master, with the whip in his uplifted hand, still stood, glaring with rage at us. She stood silent a moment or two, her face very white, then spoke: "Children, you may go and play now. School is over;" then, lest the full purport of her words should not be understood, she added, "Your schoolmaster is going to leave us."
It was an unspeakable relief, a joyful moment; yet on that very day, and on the next before he rode away, I, even I who had been unjustly and cruelly struck with a horsewhip, felt my little heart heavy in me when I saw the change in his face—the dark, still, brooding look, and knew that the thought of his fall and the loss of his home was exceedingly bitter to him. Doubtless my mother noticed it, too, and shed a few compassionate tears for the poor man, once more homeless on the great plain. But he could not be kept after that insane outbreak. To strike their children was to my parents a crime; it changed their nature and degraded them, and Mr. Trigg could not be forgiven.
Mr. Trigg, as I have said before, was a long time with us, and the happy deliverance I have related did not occur until I was near the end of my eighth year. At the present stage of my story I am not yet six, and the incident related in the following chapter, in which Mr. Trigg figures, occurred when I was within a couple of months of completing my sixth year.
DEATH OF AN OLD DOG
The old dog Caesar—His powerful personality—Last days and end—The old dog's burial—The fact of death is brought home to me—A child's mental anguish—My mother comforts me—Limitations of the child's mind—Fear of death—Witnessing the slaughter of cattle—A man in the moat—Margarita, the nursery maid—Her beauty and lovableness—Her death—I refuse to see her dead.
When recalling the impressions and experiences of that most eventful sixth year, the one incident which looks biggest in memory, at all events in the last half of that year, is the death of Caesar. There is nothing in the past I can remember so well: it was indeed the most important event of my childhood—the first thing in a young life which brought the eternal note of sadness in.
It was in the early spring, about the middle of August, and I can even remember that it was windy weather and bitterly cold for the time of year, when the old dog was approaching his end.
Caesar was an old valued dog, although of no superior breed: he was just an ordinary dog of the country, short-haired, with long legs and a blunt muzzle. The ordinary dog or native cur was about the size of a Scotch collie; Caesar was quite a third larger, and it was said of him that he was as much above all other dogs of the house, numbering about twelve or fourteen, in intelligence and courage as in size. Naturally, he was the leader and master of the whole pack, and when he got up with an awful growl, baring his big teeth, and hurled himself on the others to chastise them for quarrelling or any other infringement of dog law, they took it lying down. He was a black dog, now in his old age sprinkled with white hairs all over his body, the face and legs having gone quite grey. Caesar in a rage, or on guard at night, or when driving cattle in from the plains, was a terrible being; with us children he was mild-tempered and patient, allowing us to ride on his back, just like old Pechicho the sheep-dog, described in the first chapter. Now, in his decline, he grew irritable and surly, and ceased to be our playmate. The last two or three months of his life were very sad, and when it troubled us to see him so gaunt, with his big ribs protruding from his sides, to watch his twitchings when he dozed, groaning and wheezing the while, and marked, too, how painfully he struggled to get up on his feet, we wanted to know why it was so—why we could not give him something to make him well? For answer they would open his great mouth to show us his teeth—the big blunt canines and old molars worn down to stumps. Old age was what ailed him—he was thirteen years old, and that did verily seem to me a great age, for I was not half that, yet it seemed to me that I had been a very, very long time in the world.
No one dreamed of such a thing as putting an end to him—no hint of such a thing was ever spoken. It was not the custom in that country to shoot an old dog because he was past work. I remember his last day, and how often we came to look at him and tried to comfort him with warm rugs and the offer of food and drink where he was lying in a sheltered place, no longer able to stand up. And that night he died: we knew it as soon as we were up in the morning. Then, after breakfast, during which we had been very solemn and quiet, our schoolmaster said: "We must bury him today—at twelve o'clock, when I am free, will be the best time; the boys can come with me, and old John can bring his spade." This announcement greatly excited us, for we had never seen a dog buried, and had never even heard of such a thing having ever been done.
About noon that day old Caesar, dead and stiff, was taken by one of the workmen to a green open spot among the old peach trees, where his grave had already been dug. We followed our schoolmaster and watched while the body was lowered and the red earth shovelled in. The grave was deep, and Mr. Trigg assisted in filling it, puffing very much over the task and stopping at intervals to mop his face with his coloured cotton handkerchief.
Then, when all was done, while we were still standing silently around, it came into Mr. Trigg's mind to improve the occasion. Assuming his schoolroom expression he looked round at us and said solemnly: "That's the end. Every dog has his day and so has every man; and the end is the same for both. We die like old Caesar, and are put into the ground and have the earth shovelled over us."
Now these simple, common words affected me more than any other words I have heard in my life. They pierced me to the heart. I had heard something terrible—too terrible to think of, incredible—and yet—and yet if it was not so, why had he said it? Was it because he hated us, just because we were children and he had to teach us our lessons, and wanted to torture us? Alas! no, I could not believe that! Was this, then, the horrible fate that awaited us all? I had heard of death—I knew there was such a thing; I knew that all animals had to die, also that some men died. For how could any one, even a child in its sixth year, overlook such a fact, especially in the country of my birth—a land of battle, murder, and sudden death? I had not forgotten the young man tied to the post in the barn who had killed some one, and would perhaps, I had been told, be killed himself as a punishment. I knew, in fact, that there was good and evil in the world, good and bad men, and the bad men—murderers, thieves, and liars—would all have to die, just like animals; but that there was any life after death I did not know. All the others, myself and my own people included, were good and would never taste death. How it came about that I had got no further in my system or philosophy of life I cannot say; I can only suppose that my mother had not yet begun to give me instruction in such matters on account of my tender years, or else that she had done so and that I had understood it in my own way. Yet, as I discovered later, she was a religious woman, and from infancy I had been taught to kneel and say a little prayer each evening: "Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep"; but who the Lord was or what my soul was I had no idea. It was just a pretty little way of saying in rhyme that I was going to bed. My world was a purely material one, and a most wonderful world it was, but how I came to be in it I didn't know; I only knew (or imagined) that I would be in it always, seeing new and strange things every day, and never, never get tired of it. In literature it is only in Vaughan, Traherne, and other mystics, that I find any adequate expression of that perpetual rapturous delight in nature and my own existence which I experienced at that period.
And now these never-to-be-forgotten words spoken over the grave of our old dog had come to awaken me from that beautiful dream of perpetual joy!
When I recall this event I am less astonished at my ignorance than at the intensity of the feeling I experienced, the terrible darkness it brought on so young a mind. The child's mind we think, and in fact know, is like that of the lower animals; or if higher than the animal mind, it is not so high as that of the simplest savage. He cannot concentrate his thought—he cannot think at all; his consciousness is in its dawn; he revels in colours, in odours, is thrilled by touch and taste and sound, and is like a well-nourished pup or kitten at play on a green turf in the sunshine. This being so, one would have thought that the pain of the revelation I had received would have quickly vanished—that the vivid impressions of external things would have blotted it out and restored the harmony. But it was not so; the pain continued and increased until it was no longer to be borne; then I sought my mother, first watching until she was alone in her room. Yet when with her I feared to speak lest with a word she should confirm the dreadful tidings. Looking down, she all at once became alarmed at the sight of my face, and began to question me. Then, struggling against my tears, I told her of the words which had been spoken at the old dog's burial, and asked her if it was true, if I—if she—if all of us had to die and be buried in the ground? She replied that it was not wholly true; it was only true in a way, since our bodies had to die and be buried in the earth, but we had an immortal part which could not die. It was true that old Caesar had been a good, faithful dog, and felt and understood things almost like a human being, and most persons believed that when a dog died he died wholly and had no after-life. We could not know that; some very great, good men had thought differently; they believed that the animals, like us, would live again. That was also her belief—her strong hope; but we could not know for certain, because it had been hidden from us. For ourselves, we knew that we could not really die, because God Himself, who made us and all things, had told us so, and His promise of eternal life had been handed down to us in His Book—in the Bible.
To all this and much more I listened trembling, with a fearful interest, and when I had once grasped the idea that death when it came to me, as it must, would leave me alive after all—that, as she explained, the part of me that really mattered, the myself, the I am I, which knew and considered things, would never perish, I experienced a sudden immense relief. When I went out from her side again I wanted to run and jump for joy and cleave the air like a bird. For I had been in prison and had suffered torture, and was now free again—death would not destroy me!
There was another result of my having unburdened my heart to my mother. She had been startled at the poignancy of the feeling I had displayed, and, greatly blaming herself for having left me too long in that ignorant state, began to give me religious instruction. It was too early, since at that age it was not possible for me to rise to the conception of an immaterial world. That power, I imagine, comes later to the normal child at the age of ten or twelve. To tell him when he is five or six or seven that God is in all places at once and sees all things, only produces the idea of a wonderfully active and quick- sighted person, with eyes like a bird's, able to see what is going on all round. A short time ago I read an anecdote of a little girl who, on being put to bed by her mother, was told not to be afraid in the dark, since God would be there to watch and guard her while she slept. Then, taking the candle, the mother went downstairs; but presently her little girl came down too, in her nightdress, and, when questioned, replied, "I'm going to stay down here in the light, mummy, and you can go up to my room and sit with God." My own idea of God at that time was no higher. I would lie awake thinking of him there in the room, puzzling over the question as to how he could attend to all his numerous affairs and spend so much time looking after me. Lying with my eyes open, I could see nothing in the dark; still, I knew he was there, because I had been told so, and this troubled me. But no sooner would I close my eyes than his image would appear standing at a distance of three or four feet from the head of the bed, in the form of a column five feet high or so and about four feet in circumference. The colour was blue, but varied in depth and intensity; on some nights it was sky-blue, but usually of a deeper shade, a pure, soft, beautiful blue like that of the morning-glory or wild geranium.
It would not surprise me to find that many persons have some such material image or presentment of the spiritual entities they are taught to believe in at too tender an age. Recently, in comparing childish memories with a friend, he told me that he too always saw God as a blue object, but of no definite shape.
That blue column haunted me at night for many months; I don't think it quite vanished, ceasing to be anything but a memory, until I was seven—a date far ahead of where we are now.
To return to that second blissful revelation which came to me from my mother. Happy as it made me to know that death would not put an end to my existence, my state after the first joyful relief was not one of perfect happiness. All she said to comfort and make me brave had produced its effect—I knew now that death was but a change to an even greater bliss than I could have in this life. How could I, not yet six, think otherwise than as she had told me to think, or have a doubt? A mother is more to her child than any other being, human or divine, can ever be to him in his subsequent life. He is as dependent on her as any fledgling in the nest on its parent—even more, since she warms his callow mind or soul as well as body.
Notwithstanding all this, the fear of death came back to me in a little while, and for a long time disquieted me, especially when the fact of death was brought sharply before me. These reminders were only too frequent; there was seldom a day on which I did not see something killed. When the killing was instantaneous, as when a bird was shot and dropped dead like a stone, I was not disturbed; it was nothing but a strange, exciting spectacle, but failed to bring the fact of death home to me. It was chiefly when cattle were slaughtered that the terror returned in its full force. And no wonder! The native manner of killing a cow or bullock at that time was peculiarly painful. Occasionally it would be slaughtered out of sight on the plain, and the hide and flesh brought in by the men, but, as a rule, the beast would be driven up close to the house to save trouble. One of the two or three mounted men engaged in the operation would throw his lasso over the horns, and, galloping off, pull the rope taut; a second man would then drop from his horse, and running up to the animal behind, pluck out his big knife and with two lightning-quick blows sever the tendons of both hind legs. Instantly the beast would go down on his haunches, and the same man, knife in hand, would flit round to its front or side, and, watching his opportunity, presently thrust the long blade into its throat just above the chest, driving it in to the hilt and working it round; then when it was withdrawn a great torrent of blood would pour out from the tortured beast, still standing on his fore-legs, bellowing all the time with agony. At this point the slaughterer would often leap lightly on to its back, stick his spurs in its sides, and, using the flat of his long knife as a whip, pretend to be riding a race, yelling with fiendish glee. The bellowing would subside into deep, awful, sob-like sounds and chokings; then the rider, seeing the animal about to collapse, would fling himself nimbly off. The beast down, they would all run to it, and throwing themselves on its quivering side as on a couch, begin making and lighting their cigarettes.
Slaughtering a cow was grand sport for them, and the more active and dangerous the animal, the more prolonged the fight, the better they liked it; they were as joyfully excited as at a fight with knives or an ostrich hunt. To me it was an awful object-lesson, and held me fascinated with horror. For this was death! The crimson torrents of blood, the deep, human-like cries, made the beast appear like some huge, powerful man caught in a snare by small, weak, but cunning adversaries, who tortured him for their delight and mocked him in his agony.
There were other occurrences about that time to keep the thoughts and fear of death alive. One day a traveller came to the gate, and, after unsaddling his horse, went about sixty or seventy yards away to a shady spot, where he sat down on the green slope of the foss to cool himself. He had been riding many hours in a burning sun, and wanted cooling. He attracted everybody's attention on his arrival by his appearance: middle-aged, with good features and curly brown hair and beard, but huge—one of the biggest men I had ever seen; his weight could not have been under about seventeen stone. Sitting or reclining on the grass, he fell asleep, and rolling down the slope fell with a tremendous splash into the water, which was about six feet deep. So loud was the splash that it was heard by some of the men at work in the barn, and running out to ascertain the cause, they found out what had happened. The man had gone under and did not rise; with a good deal of trouble he was raised up and drawn with ropes to the top of the bank.
I gazed on him lying motionless, to all appearances stone dead—the huge, ox-like man I had seen less than an hour ago, when he had excited our wonder at his great size and strength, and now still in death—dead as old Caesar under the ground with the grass growing over him! Meanwhile the men who had hauled him out were busy with him, turning him over and rubbing his body, and after about twelve or fifteen minutes there was a gasp and signs of returning life, and by and by he opened his eyes. The dead man was alive again; yet the shock to me was just as great and the effect as lasting as if he had been truly dead.
Another instance which will bring me down to the end of my sixth year and the conclusion of this sad chapter. At this time we had a girl in the house, whose sweet face is one of a little group of half a dozen which I remember most vividly. She was a niece of our shepherd's wife, an Argentine woman married to an Englishman, and came to us to look after the smaller children. She was nineteen years old, a pale, slim, pretty girl, with large dark eyes and abundant black hair. Margarita had the sweetest smile imaginable, the softest voice and gentlest manner, and was so much loved by everybody in the house that she was like one of the family. Unhappily she was consumptive, and after a few months had to be sent back to her aunt. Their little place was only half a mile or so from the house, and every day my mother visited her, doing all that was possible with such skill and remedies as she possessed to give her ease, and providing her with delicacies. The girl did not want a priest to visit her and prepare her for death; she worshipped her mistress, and wished to be of the same faith, and in the end she died a pervert or convert, according to this or that person's point of view.
The day after her death we children were taken to see our beloved Margarita for the last time; but when we arrived at the door, and the others following my mother went in, I alone hung back. They came out and tried to persuade me to enter, even to pull me in, and described her appearance to excite my curiosity. She was lying all in white, with her black hair combed out and loose, on her white bed, with our flowers on her breast and at her sides, and looked very, very beautiful. It was all in vain. To look on Margarita dead was more than I could bear. I was told that only her body of clay was dead—the beautiful body we had come to say good bye to; that her soul—she herself, our loved Margarita—was alive and happy, far, far happier than any person could ever be on this earth; that when her end was near she had smiled very sweetly, and assured them that all fear of death had left her—that God was taking her to Himself. Even this was not enough to make me face the awful sight of Margarita dead; the very thought of it was an intolerable weight on my heart; but it was not grief that gave me this sensation, much as I grieved; it was solely my fear of death.
Living with trees—Winter violets—The house is made habitable—Red willow—Scissor-tail and carrion-hawk—Lombardy poplars-Black acacia— Other trees—The foss or moat—Rats—A trial of strength with an armadillo—Opossums living with a snake—Alfalfa field and butterflies —Cane brake—-Weeds and fennel—Peach trees in blossom—Paroquets— Singing of a field finch—Concert-singing in birds—Old John—Cow- birds' singing—Arrival of summer migrants.
I remember—better than any orchard, grove, or wood I have ever entered or seen, do I remember that shady oasis of trees at my new home on the illimitable grassy plain. Up till now I had never lived with trees excepting those twenty-five I have told about and that other one which was called el arbol because it was the only tree of its kind in all the land. Here there were hundreds, thousands of trees, and to my childish unaccustomed eyes it was like a great unexplored forest. There were no pines, firs, nor eucalyptus (unknown in the country then), nor evergreens of any kind; the trees being all deciduous were leafless now in mid-winter, but even so it was to me a wonderful experience to be among them, to feel and smell their rough moist bark stained green with moss, and to look up at the blue sky through the network of interlacing twigs. And spring with foliage and blossom would be with us by and by, in a month or two; even now in midwinter there was a foretaste of it, and it came to us first as a delicious fragrance in the air at one spot beside a row of old Lombardy poplars—an odour that to the child is like wine that maketh the heart glad to the adult. Here at the roots of the poplars there was a bed or carpet of round leaves which we knew well, and putting the clusters apart with our hands, lo! there were the violets already open—the dim, purple-blue, hidden violets, the earliest, sweetest, of all flowers the most loved by children in that land, and doubtless in many other lands.
There was more than time enough for us small children to feast on violets and run wild in our forest; since for several weeks we were encouraged to live out of doors as far away as we could keep from the house where we were not wanted. For just then great alterations were being made to render it habitable: new rooms were being added on to the old building, wooden flooring laid over the old bricks and tiles, and the half-rotten thatch, a haunt of rats and the home of centipedes and of many other hybernating creeping things, was being stripped off to be replaced by a clean healthy wooden roof. For me it was no hardship to be sent away to make my playground in that wooded wonderland. The trees, both fruit and shade, were of many kinds, and belonged to two widely-separated periods. The first were the old trees planted by some tree-loving owner a century or more before our time, and the second the others which had been put in a generation or two later to fill up some gaps and vacant places and for the sake of a greater variety.
The biggest of the old trees, which I shall describe first, was a red willow growing by itself within forty yards of the house. This is a native tree, and derives its specific name rubra, as well as its vernacular name, from the reddish colour of the rough bark. It grows to a great size, like the black poplar, but has long narrow leaves like those of the weeping willow. In summer I was never tired of watching this tree, since high up in one of the branches, which in those days seemed to me "so close against the sky," a scissor-tail tyrant-bird always had its nest, and this high open exposed nest was a constant attraction to the common brown carrion-hawk, called chimango—a hawk with the carrion-crow's habit of perpetually loitering about in search of eggs and fledglings.
The scissor-tail is one of the most courageous of that hawk-hating, violent-tempered tyrant-bird family, and every time a chimango appeared, which was about forty times a day, he would sally out to attack him in mid-air with amazing fury. The marauder driven off, he would return to the tree to utter his triumphant rattling castanet- like notes and (no doubt) to receive the congratulations of his mate; then to settle down again to watch the sky for the appearance of the next chimango.
A second red willow was the next largest tree in the plantation, but of this willow I shall have more to say in a later chapter.
The tall Lombardy poplars were the most numerous of the older trees, and grew in double rows, forming walks or avenues, on three sides of the entire enclosed ground. There was also a cross-row of poplars dividing the gardens and buildings from the plantation, and these were the favourite nesting-trees of two of our best-loved birds—the beautiful little goldfinch or Argentine siskin, and the bird called firewood-gatherer by the natives on account of the enormous collection of sticks which formed the nest.
Between the border poplar walk and the foss outside, there grew a single row of trees of a very different kind—the black acacia, a rare and singular tree, and of all our trees this one made the strongest and sharpest impression on my mind as well as flesh, pricking its image in me, so to speak. It had probably been planted originally by the early first planter, and, I imagine, experimentally, as a possible improvement on the wide-spreading disorderly aloe, a favourite with the first settlers; but it is a wild lawless plant and had refused to make a proper hedge. Some of these acacias had remained small and were like old scraggy bushes, some were dwarfish trees, while others had sprung up like the fabled bean-stalk and were as tall as the poplars that grew side by side with them. These tall specimens had slender boles and threw out their slender horizontal branches of great length on all sides, from the roots to the crown, the branches and the bole itself being armed with thorns two to four inches long, hard as iron, black or chocolate-brown, polished and sharp as needles; and to make itself more formidable every long thorn had two smaller thorns growing out of it near the base, so that it was in shape like a round tapering dagger with a crossguard to the handle. It was a terrible tree to climb, yet, when a little older. I had to climb it a thousand times, since there were certain birds which would make their nests in it, often as high up as they could, and some of these were birds that laid beautiful eggs, such as those of the Guira cuckoo, the size of pullets' eggs, of the purest turquoise blue flecked with snowy white.
Among our old or ancient trees the peach was the favourite of the whole house on account of the fruit it gave us in February and March, also later, in April and May, when what we called our winter peach ripened. Peach, quince, and cherry were the three favourite fruit- trees in the colonial times, and all three were found in some of the quintas or orchards of the old estancia houses. We had a score of quince trees, with thick gnarled trunks and old twisted branches like rams' horns, but the peach trees numbered about four to five hundred and grew well apart from one another, and were certainly the largest I have ever seen. Their size was equal to that of the oldest and largest cherry trees one sees in certain favoured spots in Southern England, where they grow not in close formation but wide apart with ample room for the branches to spread on all sides.
The trees planted by a later generation, both shade and fruit, were more varied. The most abundant was the mulberry, of which there were many hundreds, mostly in rows, forming walks, and albeit of the same species as our English mulberry they differed from it in the great size and roughness of the leaves and in producing fruit of a much smaller size. The taste of the fruit was also less luscious and it was rarely eaten by our elders. We small children feasted on it, but it was mostly for the birds. The mulberry was looked on as a shade, not a fruit tree, and the other two most important shade trees, in number, were the acacia blanca, or false acacia, and the paradise tree or pride of China. Besides these there was a row of eight or ten ailanthus trees, or tree of heaven as it is sometimes called, with tall white smooth trunk crowned with a cluster of palm-like foliage. There was also a modern orchard, containing pear, apple, plum, and cherry trees.
The entire plantation, the buildings included, comprising an area of eight or nine acres, was surrounded by an immense ditch or foss about twelve feet deep and twenty to thirty feet wide. It was undoubtedly very old and had grown in width owing to the crumbling away of the earth at the sides. This in time would have filled and almost obliterated it, but at intervals of two or three years, at a time when it was dry, quantities of earth were dug up from the bottom and thrown on the mound inside. It was in appearance something like a prehistoric earthwork. In winter as a rule it became full of water and was a favourite haunt, especially at night, of flocks of teal, also duck of a few other kinds—widgeon, pintail, and shoveller. In summer it gradually dried up, but a few pools of muddy water usually remained through all the hot season and were haunted by the solitary or summer snipe, one of the many species of sandpiper and birds of that family which bred in the northern hemisphere and wintered with us when it was our summer. Once the water had gone down in the moat, long grass and herbage would spring up and flourish on its sloping sides, and the rats and other small beasties would return and riddle it with innumerable burrows.
The rats were killed down from time to time with the "smoking machine," which pumped the fumes of sulphur, bad tobacco, and other deadly substances into their holes and suffocated them; and I recall two curious incidents during these crusades. One day I was standing on the mound at the side of the moat or foss some forty yards from where the men were at work, when an armadillo bolted from his earth and running to the very spot where I was standing began vigorously digging to escape by burying himself in the soil. Neither men nor dogs had seen him, and I at once determined to capture him unaided by any one and imagined it would prove a very easy task. Accordingly I laid hold of his black bone-cased tail with both hands and began tugging to get him off the ground, bait couldn't move him. He went on digging furiously, getting deeper and deeper into the earth, and I soon found that instead of my pulling him out he was pulling me in after him. It hurt my small-boy pride to think that an animal no bigger than a cat was going to beat me in a trial of strength, and this made me hold on more tenaciously than ever and tug and strain more violently, until not to lose him I had to go flat down on the ground. But it was all for nothing: first my hands, then my aching arms were carried down into the earth, and I was forced to release my hold and get up to rid myself of the mould he had been throwing up into my face and all over my head, neck, and shoulders.
In the other case, one of my older brothers seeing the dogs sniffing and scratching at a large burrow, took a spade and dug a couple of feet into the soil and found an adult black-and-white opossum with eight or nine half-grown young lying together in a nest of dry grass, and, wonderful to tell, a large venomous snake coiled up amongst them. The snake was the dreaded vivora de la cruz, as the gauchos call it, a pit-viper of the same family as the fer-de-lance, the bush-master, and the rattlesnake. It was about three feet long, very thick in proportion, and with broad head and blunt tail. It came forth hissing and striking blindly right and left when the dogs pulled the opossums out, but was killed with a blow of the spade without injuring the dogs.
This was the first serpent with a cross I had seen, and the sight of the thick blunt body of a greenish-grey colour blotched with dull black, and the broad flat head with its stony-white lidless eyes, gave me a thrill of horror. In after years I became familiar with it and could even venture to pick it up without harm to myself, just as now in England I pick up the less dangerous adder when I come upon one. The wonder to us was that this extremely irascible and venomous serpent should be living in a nest with a large family of opossums, for it must be borne in mind that the opossum is a rapacious and an exceedingly savage-tempered beast.
This then was the world in which I moved and had my being, within the limits of the old rat-haunted foss among the enchanted trees. But it was not the trees only that made it so fascinating, it had open spaces and other forms of vegetation which were exceedingly attractive too.
There was a field of alfalfa about half an acre in size, which flowered three times a year, and during the flowering time it drew the butterflies from all the surrounding plain with its luscious bean-like fragrance, until the field was full of them, red, black, yellow, and white butterflies, fluttering in flocks round every blue spike.