Canes, too, in a large patch or "brake" as we called it, grew at another spot; a graceful plant about twenty-five feet high, in appearance unlike the bamboo, as the long pointed leaves were of a glaucous blue-green colour. The canes were valuable to us as they served as fishing-rods when we were old enough for that sport, and were also used as lances when we rode forth to engage in mimic battles on the plain. But they also had an economic value, as they were used by the natives when making their thatched roofs as a substitute for the bamboo cane, which cost much more as it had to be imported from other countries. Accordingly at the end of the summer, after the cane had flowered, they were all cut down, stripped of their leaves, and taken away in bundles, and we were then deprived till the following season of the pleasure of hunting for the tallest and straightest canes to cut them down and strip off leaves and bark to make beautiful green polished rods for our sports.
There were other open spaces covered with a vegetation almost as interesting as the canes and the trees: this was where what were called "weeds" were allowed to flourish. Here were the thorn-apple, chenopodium, sow-thistle, wild mustard, redweed, viper's bugloss, and others, both native and introduced, in dense thickets five or six feet high. It was difficult to push one's way through these thickets, and one was always in dread of treading on a snake. At another spot fennel flourished by itself, as if it had some mysterious power, perhaps its peculiar smell, of keeping other plants at a proper distance. It formed quite a thicket, and grew to a height of ten or twelve feet. This spot was a favourite haunt of mine, as it was in a waste place at the furthest point from the house, a wild solitary spot where I could spend long hours by myself watching the birds. But I also loved the fennel for itself, its beautiful green feathery foliage and the smell of it, also the taste, so that whenever I visited that secluded spot I would rub the crushed leaves in my palms and chew the small twigs for their peculiar fennel flavour.
Winter made a great change in the plantation, since it not only stripped the trees of their leaves but swept away all that rank herbage, the fennel included, allowing the grass to grow again. The large luxuriantly-growing annuals also disappeared from the garden and all about the house, the big four-o'clock bushes with deep red stems and wealth of crimson blossoms, and the morning-glory convolvulus with its great blue trumpets, climbing over and covering every available place with its hop-like mass of leaves and abundant blooms. My life in the plantation in winter was a constant watching for spring. May, June, and July were the leafless months, but not wholly songless. On any genial and windless day of sunshine in winter a few swallows would reappear, nobody could guess from where, to spend the bright hours wheeling like house-martins about the house, revisiting their old breeding-holes under the eaves, and uttering their lively little rippling songs, as of water running in a pebbly stream. When the sun declined they would vanish, to be seen no more until we had another perfect spring-like day.
On such days in July and on any mild misty morning, standing on the mound within the moat I would listen to the sounds from the wide open plain, and they were sounds of spring—the constant drumming and rhythmic cries of the spur-wing lapwings engaged in their social meetings and "dances," and the song of the pipit soaring high up and pouring out its thick prolonged strains as it slowly floated downwards to the earth.
In August the peach blossomed. The great old trees standing wide apart on their grassy carpet, barely touching each other with the tips of their widest branches, were like great mound-shaped clouds of exquisite rosy-pink blossoms. There was then nothing in the universe which could compare in loveliness to that spectacle. I was a worshipper of trees at this season, and I remember my shocked and indignant feeling when one day a flock of green paroquets came screaming down and alighted on one of the trees near me. This paroquet never bred in our plantation; they were occasional visitors from their home in an old grove about nine miles away, and their visits were always a great pleasure to us. On this occasion I was particularly glad, because the birds had elected to settle on a tree close to where I was standing. But the blossoms thickly covering every twig annoyed the parrots, as they could not find space enough to grasp a twig without grasping its flower as well; so what did the birds do in their impatience but begin stripping the blossoms off the branches on which they were perched with their sharp beaks, so rapidly that the flowers came down in a pink shower, and in this way in half a minute every bird made a twig bare where he could sit perched at ease. There were millions of blossoms; only one here and there would ever be a peach, yet it vexed me to see the parrots cut them off in that heedless way: it was a desecration, a crime even in a bird.
Even now when I recall the sight of those old flowering peach trees, with trunks as thick as a man's body, and the huge mounds or clouds of myriads of roseate blossoms seen against the blue ethereal sky, I am not sure that I have seen anything in my life more perfectly beautiful. Yet this great beauty was but half the charm I found in these trees: the other half was in the bird-music that issued from them. It was the music of but one kind of bird, a small greenish yellow field finch, in size like the linnet though with a longer and slimmer body, and resembling a linnet too in its general habits. Thus, in autumn it unites in immense flocks, which keep together during the winter months and sing in concert and do not break up until the return of the breeding season. In a country where there were no bird-catchers or human persecutors of small birds, the flocks of this finch, called Misto by the natives, were far larger than any linnet flocks ever seen in England. The flock we used to have about our plantation numbered many thousands, and you would see them like a cloud wheeling about in the air, then suddenly dropping and vanishing from sight in the grass, where they fed on small seeds and tender leaves and buds. On going to the spot they would rise with a loud humming sound of innumerable wings, and begin rushing and whirling about again, chasing each other in play and chirping, and presently all would drop to the ground again.
In August, when the spring begins to infect their blood, they repair to the trees at intervals during the day, where they sit perched and motionless for an hour or longer, all singing together. This singing time was when the peach trees were in blossom, and it was invariably in the peach trees they settled and could be seen, the little yellow birds in thousands amid the millions of pink blossoms, pouring out their wonderful music.
One of the most delightful bird sounds or noises to be heard in England is the concert-singing of a flock of several hundreds, and sometimes of a thousand or more linnets in September and October, and even later in the year, before these great congregations have been broken up or have migrated. The effect produced by the small field finch of the pampas was quite different. The linnet has a little twittering song with breaks in it and small chirping sounds, and when a great multitude of birds sing together the sound at a distance of fifty or sixty yards is as of a high wind among the trees, but on a nearer approach the mass of sound resolves itself into a tangle of thousands of individual sounds, resembling that of a great concourse of starlings at roosting time, but more musical in character. It is as if hundreds of fairy minstrels were all playing on stringed and wind instruments of various forms, every one intent on his own performance without regard to the others.
The field finch does not twitter or chirp and has no break or sudden change in his song, which is composed of a series of long-drawn notes, the first somewhat throaty but growing clearer and brighter towards the end, so that when thousands sing together it is as if they sang in perfect unison, the effect on the hearing being like that on the sight of flowing water or of rain when the multitudinous falling drops appear as silvery-grey lines on the vision. It is an exceedingly beautiful effect, and so far as I know unique among birds that have the habit of singing in large companies.
I remember that we had a carpenter in those days, an Englishman named John, a native of Cumberland, who used to make us laugh at his slow heavy way when, after asking him some simple question, we had to wait until he put down his tools and stared at us for about twenty seconds before replying. One of my elder brothers had dubbed him the "Cumberland boor." I remember one day on going to listen to the choir of finches in the blossoming orchard, I was surprised to see John standing near the trees doing nothing, and as I came up to him he turned towards me with a look which astonished me on his dull old face—that look which perhaps one of my readers has by chance seen on the face of a religious mystic in a moment of exaltation. "Those little birds! I never heard anything like it!" he exclaimed, then trudged off to his work. Like most Englishmen, he had, no doubt, a vein of poetic feeling hidden away somewhere in his soul.
We also had the other kind of concert-singing by another species in the plantation. This was the common purple cow-bird, one of the Troupial family, exclusively American, but supposed to have affinities with the starlings of the Old World. This cow-bird is parasitical (like the European cuckoo) in its breeding habits, and having no domestic affairs of its own to attend to it lives in flocks all the year round, leading an idle vagabond life. The male is of a uniform deep purple-black, the female a drab or mouse-colour. The cow-birds were excessively numerous among the trees in summer, perpetually hunting for nests in which to deposit their eggs: they fed on the ground out on the plain and were often in such big flocks as to look like a huge black carpet spread out on the green sward. On a rainy day they did not feed: they congregated on the trees in thousands and sang by the hour. Their favourite gathering-place at such times was behind the house, where the trees grew pretty thick and were sheltered on two sides by the black acacias and double rows of Lombardy poplars, succeeded by double rows of large mulberry trees, forming walks, and these by pear, apple and cherry trees. From whichever side the wind blew it was calm here, and during the heaviest rain the birds would sit here in their thousands, pouring out a continuous torrent of song, which resembled the noise produced by thousands of starlings at roosting-time, but was louder and differed somewhat in character owing to the peculiar song of the cow-bird, which begins with hollow guttural sounds, followed by a burst of loud clear ringing notes.
These concert-singers, the little green and yellow field finch and the purple cow-bird, were with us all the year round, with many others which it would take a whole chapter to tell of. When, in July and August, I watched for the coming spring, it was the migrants, the birds that came annually to us from the far north, that chiefly attracted me. Before their arrival the bloom was gone from the peach trees, and the choir of countless little finches broken up and scattered all over the plain. Then the opening leaves were watched, and after the willows the first and best-loved were the poplars. During all the time they were opening, when they were still a yellowish-green in colour, the air was full of the fragrance, but not satisfied with that I would crush and rub the new small leaves in my hands and on my face to get the delicious balsamic smell in fuller measure. And of all the trees, after the peach, the poplars appeared to feel the new season with the greatest intensity, for it seemed to me that they felt the sunshine even as I did, and they expressed it in their fragrance just as the peach and other trees did in their flowers. And it was also expressed in the new sound they gave out to the wind. The change was really wonderful when the rows on rows of immensely tall trees which for months had talked and cried in that strange sibilant language, rising to shrieks when a gale was blowing, now gave out a larger volume of sound, more continuous, softer, deeper, and like the wash of the sea on a wide shore.
The other trees would follow, and by and by all would be in full foliage once more, and ready to receive their strange beautiful guests from the tropical forests in the distant north.
The most striking of the newcomers was the small scarlet tyrant-bird, which is about the size of our spotted flycatcher; all a shining scarlet except the black wings and tail. This bird had a delicate bell-like voice, but it was the scarlet colour shining amid the green foliage which made me delight in it above all other birds. Yet the humming-bird, which arrived at the same time, was wonderfully beautiful too, especially when he flew close to your face and remained suspended motionless on mist-like wings for a few moments, his feathers looking and glittering like minute emerald scales.
Then came other tyrant-birds and the loved swallows—the house- swallow, which resembles the English house-martin, the large purple martin, the Golodrina domestica, and the brown tree-martin. Then, too, came the yellow-billed cuckoo—the kowe-kowe as it is called from its cry. Year after year I listened for its deep mysterious call, which sounded like gow-gow-gow-gow-gow, in late September, even as the small English boy listens for the call of his cuckoo, in April; and the human-like character of the sound, together with the startlingly impressive way in which it was enunciated, always produced the idea that it was something more than a mere bird call. Later, in October when the weather was hot, I would hunt for the nest, a frail platform made of a few sticks with four or five oval eggs like those of the turtledove in size and of a pale green colour.
There were other summer visitors, but I must not speak of them as this chapter contains too much on that subject. My feathered friends were so much to me that I am constantly tempted to make this sketch of my first years a book about birds and little else. There remains, too, much more to say about the plantation, the trees and their effect on my mind, also some adventures I met with, some with birds and others with snakes, which will occupy two or three or more chapters later on.
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.
As a small boy of six but well able to ride bare-backed at a fast gallop without falling off, I invite the reader, mounted too, albeit on nothing but an imaginary animal, to follow me a league or so from the gate to some spot where the land rises to a couple or three or four feet above the surrounding level. There, sitting on our horses, we shall command a wider horizon than even the tallest man would have standing on his own legs, and in this way get a better idea of the district in which ten of the most impressionable years of my life, from five to fifteen, were spent.
We see all round us a flat land, its horizon a perfect ring of misty blue colour where the crystal-blue dome of the sky rests on the level green world. Green in late autumn, winter, and spring, or say from April to November, but not all like a green lawn or field: there were smooth areas where sheep had pastured, but the surface varied greatly and was mostly more or less rough. In places the land as far as one could see was covered with a dense growth of cardoon thistles, or wild artichoke, of a bluish or grey-green colour, while in other places the giant thistle flourished, a plant with big variegated green and white leaves, and standing when in flower six to ten feet high.
There were other breaks and roughnesses on that flat green expanse caused by the vizcachas, a big rodent the size of a hare, a mighty burrower in the earth. Vizcachas swarmed in all that district where they have now practically been exterminated, and lived in villages, called vizcacheras, composed of thirty or forty huge burrows—about the size of half a dozen badgers' earths grouped together. The earth thrown out of these diggings formed a mound, and being bare of vegetation it appeared in the landscape as a clay-coloured spot on the green surface. Sitting on a horse one could count a score to fifty or sixty of these mounds or vizcacheras on the surrounding plain.
On all this visible earth there were no fences, and no trees excepting those which had been planted at the old estancia houses, and these being far apart the groves and plantations looked like small islands of trees, or mounds, blue in the distance, on the great plain or pampa. They were mostly shade trees, the commonest being the Lombardy poplar, which of all trees is the easiest one to grow in that land. And these trees at the estancias or cattle-ranches were, at the time I am writing about, almost invariably aged and in many instances in an advanced state of decay. It is interesting to know how these old groves and plantations ever came into existence in a land where at that time there was practically no tree-planting.
The first colonists who made their homes in this vast vacant space, called the pampas, came from a land where the people are accustomed to sit in the shade of trees, where corn and wine and oil are supposed to be necessaries, and where there is salad in the garden. Naturally they made gardens and planted trees, both for shade and fruit, wherever they built themselves a house on the pampas, and no doubt for two or three generations they tried to live as people live in Spain, in the rural districts. But now the main business of their lives was cattle- raising, and as the cattle roamed at will over the vast plains and were more like wild than domestic animals, it was a life on horseback. They could no longer dig or plough the earth or protect their crops from insects and birds and their own animals. They gave up their oil and wine and bread and lived on flesh alone. They sat in the shade and ate the fruit of trees planted by their fathers or their great- grandfathers until the trees died of old age, or were blown down or killed by the cattle, and there was no more shade and fruit.
It thus came about that the Spanish colonists on the pampas declined from the state of an agricultural people to that of an exclusively pastoral and hunting one; and later, when the Spanish yoke, as it was called, was shaken off, the incessant throat-cutting wars of the various factions, which were like the wars of "crows and pies," except that knives were used instead of beaks, confirmed and sunk them deeper in their wild and barbarous manner of life.
Thus, too, the tree-clumps on the pampas were mostly remains of a vanished past. To these clumps or plantations we shall return later on when I come to describe the home life of some of our nearest neighbours; here the houses only, with or without trees growing about them, need be mentioned as parts of the landscape. The houses were always low and scarcely visible at a distance of a mile and a half: one always had to stoop on entering a door. They were built of burnt or unburnt brick, more often clay and brushwood, and thatched with sedges or bulrushes. At some of the better houses there would be a small garden, a few yards of soil protected in some way from the poultry and animals, in which a few flowers and herbs were grown, especially parsley, rue, sage, tansy, and horehound. But there was no other cultivation attempted, and no vegetables were eaten except onions and garlic, which were bought at the stores, with bread, rice, mate tea, oil, vinegar, raisins, cinnamon, pepper, cummin seed, and whatever else they could afford to season their meat-pies or give a flavour to the monotonous diet of cow's flesh and mutton and pig. Almost the only game eaten was ostrich, armadillo, and tinamou (the partridge of the country), which the boys could catch by snaring or running them down. Wild duck, plover, and such birds they rarely or never tasted, as they could not shoot; and as to the big rodent, the vizcacha, which swarmed everywhere, no gaucho would touch its flesh, although to my taste it was better than rabbit.
The summer change in the aspect of the plain would begin in November: the dead dry grass would take on a yellowish-brown colour, the giant thistle a dark rust brown, and at this season, from November to February, the grove or plantation at the estancia house, with its deep fresh unchanging verdure and shade, was a veritable refuge on the vast flat yellow earth. It was then, when the water-courses were gradually drying up and the thirsty days coming to flocks and herds, that the mocking illusion of the mirage was constantly about us. Quite early in spring, on any warm cloudless day, this water-mirage was visible, and was like the appearance on a hot summer's day of the atmosphere in England when the air near the surface becomes visible, when one sees it dancing before one's eyes, like thin wavering and ascending tongues of flame—crystal-clear flames mixed with flames of a faint pearly or silver grey. On the level and hotter pampas this appearance is intensified, and the faintly visible wavering flames change to an appearance of lakelets or sheets of water looking as if ruffled by the wind and shining like molten silver in the sun. The resemblance to water is increased when there are groves and buildings on the horizon, which look like dark blue islands or banks in the distance, while the cattle and horses feeding not far from the spectator appear to be wading knee or belly deep in the brilliant water.
The aspect of the plain was different in what was called a "thistle year," when the giant thistles, which usually occupied definite areas or grew in isolated patches, suddenly sprang up everywhere, and for a season covered most of the land. In these luxuriant years the plants grew as thick as sedges and bulrushes in their beds, and were taller than usual, attaining a height of about ten feet. The wonder was to see a plant which throws out leaves as large as those of the rhubarb, with its stems so close together as to be almost touching. Standing among the thistles in the growing season one could in a sense hear them growing, as the huge leaves freed themselves with a jerk from a cramped position, producing a crackling sound. It was like the crackling sound of the furze seed-vessels which one hears in June in England, only much louder.
To the gaucho who lives half his day on his horse and loves his freedom as much as a wild bird, a thistle year was a hateful period of restraint. His small, low-roofed, mud house was then too like a cage to him, as the tall thistles hemmed it in and shut out the view on all sides. On his horse he was compelled to keep to the narrow cattle track and to draw in or draw up his legs to keep them from the long pricking spines. In those distant primitive days the gaucho if a poor man was usually shod with nothing but a pair of iron spurs.
By the end of November the thistles would be dead, and their huge hollow stalks as dry and light as the shaft of a bird's feather—a feather-shaft twice as big round as a broomstick and six to eight feet long. The roots were not only dead but turned to dust in the ground, so that one could push a stalk from its place with one finger, but it would not fall since it was held up by scores of other sticks all round it, and these by hundreds more, and the hundreds by thousands and millions. The thistle dead was just as great a nuisance as the thistle living, and in this dead dry condition they would sometimes stand all through December and January when the days were hottest and the danger of fire was ever present to people's minds. At any moment a careless spark from a cigarette might kindle a dangerous blaze. At such times the sight of smoke in the distance would cause every man who saw it to mount his horse and fly to the danger-spot, where an attempt would be made to stop the fire by making a broad path in the thistles some fifty to a hundred yards ahead of it. One way to make the path was to lasso and kill a few sheep from the nearest flock and drag them up and down at a gallop through the dense thistles until a broad space was clear where the flames could be stamped and beaten out with horse-rugs. But sheep to be used in this way were not always to be found on the spot, and even when a broad space could be made, if a hot north wind was blowing it would carry showers of sparks and burning sticks to the other side and the fire would travel on.
I remember going to one of these big fires when I was about twelve years old. It broke out a few miles from home and was travelling in our direction; I saw my father mount and dash off, but it took me half an hour or more to catch a horse for myself, so that I arrived late on the scene. A fresh fire had broken out a quarter of a mile in advance of the main one, where most of the men were fighting the flames; and to this spot I went first, and found some half a dozen neighbours who had just arrived on the scene. Before we started operations about twenty men from the main fire came galloping up to us. They had made their path, but seeing this new fire so far ahead, had left it in despair after an hour's hard hot work, and had flown to the new danger spot. As they came up I looked in wonder at one who rode ahead, a tall black man in his shirt sleeves who was a stranger to me. "Who is this black fellow, I wonder?" said I to myself, and just then he shouted to me in English, "Hullo, my boy, what are you doing here?" It was my father; an hour's fighting with the flames in a cloud of black ashes in that burning sun and wind had made him look like a pure-blooded negro!
During December and January when this desert world of thistles dead and dry as tinder continued standing, a menace and danger, the one desire and hope of every one was for the pampero—the south-west wind, which in hot weather is apt to come with startling suddenness, and to blow with extraordinary violence. And it would come at last, usually in the afternoon of a close hot day, after the north wind had been blowing persistently for days with a breath as from a furnace. At last the hateful wind would drop and a strange gloom that was not from any cloud would cover the sky; and by and by a cloud would rise, a dull dark cloud as of a mountain becoming visible on the plain at an enormous distance. In a little while it would cover half the sky, and there would be thunder and lightning and a torrent of rain, and at the same moment the wind would strike and roar in the bent-down trees and shake the house. And in an hour or two it would perhaps be all over, and next morning the detested thistles would be gone, or at all events levelled to the ground.
After such a storm the sense of relief to the horseman, now able to mount and gallop forth in any direction over the wide plain and see the earth once more spread out for miles before him, was like that of a prisoner released from his cell, or of the sick man, when he at length repairs his vigour lost and breathes and walks again.
To this day it gives me a thrill, or perhaps it would be safer to say the ghost of a vanished thrill, when I remember the relief it was in my case, albeit I was never so tied to a horse, so parasitical, as the gaucho, after one of these great thistle-levelling pampero winds. It was a rare pleasure to ride out and gallop my horse over wide brown stretches of level land, to hear his hard hoofs crushing the hollow desiccated stalks covering the earth in millions like the bones of a countless host of perished foes. It was a queer kind of joy, a mixed feeling with a dash of gratified revenge to give it a sharp savour.
After all this abuse of the giant thistle, the Cardo asnal of the natives and Carduus mariana of the botanists, it may sound odd to say that a "thistle year" was a blessing in some ways. It was an anxious year on account of the fear of fire, and a season of great apprehension too when reports of robberies and other crimes were abroad in the land, especially for the poor women who were left so much alone in their low-roofed hovels, shut in by the dense prickly growth. But a thistle year was called a fat year, since the animals— cattle, horses, sheep, and even pigs—browsed freely on the huge leaves and soft sweetish-tasting stems, and were in excellent condition. The only drawbacks were that the riding-horses lost strength as they gained in fat, and cow's milk didn't taste nice.
The best and fattest time would come when the hardening plant was no longer fit to eat and the flowers began to shed their seed. Each flower, in size like a small coffee-cup, would open out in a white mass and shed its scores of silvery balls, and these when freed of heavy seed would float aloft in the wind, and the whole air as far as one could see would be filled with millions and myriads of floating balls. The fallen seed was so abundant as to cover the ground under the dead but still standing plants. It is a long, slender seed, about the size of a grain of Carolina rice, of a greenish or bluish-grey colour, spotted with black. The sheep feasted on it, using their mobile and extensible upper lips like a crumb-brush to gather it into their mouths. Horses gathered it in the same way, but the cattle were out of it, either because they could not learn the trick, or because their lips and tongues cannot be used to gather a crumb-like food. Pigs, however, flourished on it, and to birds, domestic and wild, it was even more than to the mammals.
In conclusion of this chapter I will return for a page or two to the subject of the pampero, the south-west wind of the Argentine pampas, to describe the greatest of all the great pampero storms I have witnessed. This was when I was in my seventh year.
The wind blowing from this quarter is not like the south-west wind of the North Atlantic and Britain, a warm wind laden with moisture from hot tropical seas—that great wind which Joseph Conrad in his Mirror of the Sea has personified in one of the sublimest passages in recent literature. It is an excessively violent wind, as all mariners know who have encountered it on the South Atlantic off the River Plate, but it is cool and dry, although it frequently comes with great thunder- clouds and torrents of rain and hail. The rain may last half-an-hour to half-a-day, but when over the sky is without a vapour and a spell of fine weather ensues.
It was in sultry summer weather, and towards evening all of us boys and girls went out for a ramble on the plain, and were about a quarter of a mile from home when a blackness appeared in the south-west, and began to cover the sky in that quarter so rapidly that, taking alarm, we started homewards as fast as we could run. But the stupendous slaty-black darkness, mixed with yellow clouds of dust, gained on us, and before we got to the gate the terrified screams of wild birds reached our ears, and glancing back we saw multitudes of gulls and plover flying madly before the storm, trying to keep ahead of it. Then a swarm of big dragon-flies came like a cloud over us, and was gone in an instant, and just as we reached the gate the first big drops splashed down in the form of liquid mud. We had hardly got indoors before the tempest broke in its full fury, a blackness as of night, a blended uproar of thunder and wind, blinding flashes of lightning, and torrents of rain. Then as the first thick darkness began to pass away, we saw that the air was white with falling hailstones of an extraordinary size and appearance. They were big as fowls' eggs, but not egg-shaped: they were flat, and about half-an-inch thick, and being white, looked like little blocks or bricklets made of compressed snow. The hail continued falling until the earth was white with them, and in spite of their great size they were driven by the furious wind into drifts two or three feet deep against the walls of the buildings.
It was evening and growing dark when the storm ended, but the light next morning revealed the damage we had suffered. Pumpkins, gourds, and water-melons were cut to pieces, and most of the vegetables, including the Indian corn, were destroyed. The fruit trees, too, had suffered greatly. Forty or fifty sheep had been killed outright, and hundreds more were so much hurt that for days they went limping about or appeared stupefied from blows on the head. Three of our heifers were dead, and one horse—an old loved riding-horse with a history, old Zango—the whole house was in grief at his death! He belonged originally to a cavalry officer who had an extraordinary affection for him—a rare thing in a land where horseflesh was too cheap, and men as a rule careless of their animals and even cruel. The officer had spent years in the Banda Oriental, in guerilla warfare, and had ridden Zango in every fight in which he had been engaged. Coming back to Buenos Ayres he brought the old horse home with him. Two or three years later he came to my father, whom he had come to know very well, and said he had been ordered to the upper provinces and was in great trouble about his horse. He was twenty years old, he said, and no longer fit to be ridden in a fight; and of all the people he knew there was but one man in whose care he wished to leave his horse. I know, he said, that if you will take him and promise to care for him until his old life ends, he will be safe; and I should be happy about him—as happy as I can be without the horse I have loved more than any other being on earth. My father consented, and had kept the old horse for over nine years when he was killed by the hail. He was a well-shaped dark brown animal, with long mane and tail, but, as I knew him, always lean and old- looking, and the chief use he was put to was for the children to take their first riding-lessons on his back.
My parents had already experienced one great sadness on account of Zango before his strange death. For years they had looked for a letter, a message, from the absent officer, and had often pictured his return and joy at finding alive still and embracing his beloved old friend again. But he never returned, and no message came and no news could be heard of him, and it was at last concluded that he had lost his life in that distant part of the country, where there had been much fighting.
To return to the hailstones. The greatest destruction had fallen on the wild birds. Before the storm immense numbers of golden plover had appeared and were in large flocks on the plain. One of our native boys rode in and offered to get a sackful of plover for the table, and getting the sack he took me up on his horse behind him. A mile or so from home we came upon scores of dead plover lying together where they had been in close flocks, but my companion would not pick up a dead bird. There were others running about with one wing broken, and these he went after, leaving me to hold his horse, and catching them would wring their necks and drop them in the sack. When he had collected two or three dozen he remounted and we rode back.
Later that morning we heard of one human being, a boy of six, in one of our poor neighbours' houses, who had lost his life in a curious way. He was standing in the middle of the room, gazing out at the falling hail, when a hailstone, cutting through the thatched roof, struck him on the head and killed him instantly.
SOME BIRD ADVENTURES
Visit to a river on the pampas—A first long walk—Waterfowl—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.
Just before my riding days began in real earnest, when I was not yet quite confident enough to gallop off alone for miles to see the world for myself, I had my first long walk on the plain. One of my elder brothers invited me to accompany him to a water-course, one of the slow-flowing shallow marshy rivers of the pampas which was but two miles from home. The thought of the half-wild cattle we would meet terrified me, but he was anxious for my company that day and assured me that he could see no herd in that direction and he would be careful to give a wide berth to anything with horns we might come upon. Then I joyfully consented and we set out, three of us, to survey the wonders of a great stream of running water, where bulrushes grew and large wild birds, never seen by us at home, would be found. I had had a glimpse of the river before, as, when driving to visit a neighbour, we had crossed it at one of the fords and I had wished to get down and run on its moist green low banks, and now that desire would be gratified. It was for me a tremendously long walk, as we had to take many a turn to avoid the patches of cardoon and giant thistles, and by and by we came to low ground where the grass was almost waist-high and full of flowers. It was all like an English meadow in June, when every grass and every herb is in flower, beautiful and fragrant, but tiring to a boy six years old to walk through. At last we came out to a smooth grass turf, and in a little while were by the stream, which had overflowed its banks owing to recent heavy rains and was now about fifty yards wide. An astonishing number of birds were visible—chiefly wild duck, a few swans, and many waders-ibises, herons, spoonbills, and others, but the most wonderful of all were three immensely tall white-and-rose-coloured birds, wading solemnly in a row a yard or so apart from one another some twenty yards out from the bank. I was amazed and enchanted at the sight, and my delight was intensified when the leading bird stood still and, raising his head and long neck aloft, opened and shook his wings. For the wings when open were of a glorious crimson colour, and the bird was to me the most angel-like creature on earth.
What were these wonderful birds? I asked of my brothers, but they could not tell me. They said they had never seen birds like them before, and later I found that the flamingo was not known in our neighbourhood as the water-courses were not large enough for it, but that it could be seen in flocks at a lake less than a day's journey from our home.
It was not for several years that I had an opportunity of seeing the bird again; later I have seen it scores and hundreds of times, at rest or flying, at all times of the day and in all states of the atmosphere, in all its most beautiful aspects, as when at sunset or in the early morning it stands motionless in the still water with its clear image reflected below; or when seen flying in flocks—seen from some high bank beneath one—moving low over the blue water in a long crimson line or half moon, the birds at equal distances apart, their wing-tips all but touching; but the delight in these spectacles has never equalled in degree that which I experienced on this occasion when I was six years old.
The next little bird adventure to be told exhibits me more in the character of an innocent and exceedingly credulous baby of three than of a field naturalist of six with a considerable experience of wild birds.
One spring day an immense number of doves appeared and settled in the plantation. It was a species common in the country and bred in our trees, and in fact in every grove or orchard in the land—a pretty dove-coloured bird with a pretty sorrowful song, about a third less in size than the domestic pigeon, and belongs to the American genus Zenaida. This dove was a resident with us all the year round, but occasionally in spring and autumn they were to be seen travelling in immense flocks, and these were evidently strangers in the land and came from some sub-tropical country in the north where they had no fear of the human form. At all events, on going out into the plantation I found them all about on the ground, diligently searching for seeds, and so tame and heedless of my presence that I actually attempted to capture them with my hands. But they wouldn't be caught: the bird when I stooped and put out my hands slipped away, and flying a yard or two would settle down in front of me and go on looking for and picking up invisible seeds.
My attempts failing I rushed back to the house, wildly excited, to look for an old gentleman who lived with us and took an interest in me and my passion for birds, and finding him I told him the whole place was swarming with doves and they were perfectly tame but wouldn't let me catch them—could he tell me how to catch them? He laughed and said I must be a little fool not to know how to catch a bird. The only way was to put salt on their tails. There would be no difficulty in doing that, I thought, and how delighted I was to know that birds could be caught so easily! Off I ran to the salt-barrel and filled my pockets and hands with coarse salt used to make brine in which to dip the hides; for I wanted to catch a great many doves—armfuls of doves.
In a few minutes I was out again in the plantation, with doves in hundreds moving over the ground all about me and taking no notice of me. It was a joyful and exciting moment when I started operations, but I soon found that when I tossed a handful of salt at the bird's tail it never fell on its tail—it fell on the ground two or three or four inches short of the tail. If, I thought, the bird would only keep still a moment longer! But then it wouldn't, and I think I spent quite two hours in these vain attempts to make the salt fall on the right place. At last I went back to my mentor to confess that I had failed and to ask for fresh instructions, but all he would say was that I was on the right track, that the plan I had adopted was the proper one, and all that was wanted was a little more practice to enable me to drop the salt on the right spot. Thus encouraged I filled my pockets again and started afresh, and then finding that by following the proper plan I made no progress I adopted a new one, which was to take a handful of salt and hurl it at the bird's tail. Still I couldn't touch the tail; my violent action only frightened the bird and caused it to fly away, a dozen yards or so, before dropping down again to resume its seed-searching business.
By-and-by I was told by somebody that birds could not be caught by putting salt on their tails; that I was being made a fool of, and this was a great shock to me, since I had been taught to believe that it was wicked to tell a lie. Now for the first time I discovered that there were lies and lies, or untruths that were not lies, which one could tell innocently although they were invented and deliberately told to deceive. This angered me at first, and I wanted to know how I was to distinguish between real lies and lies that were not lies, and the only answer I got was that I could distinguish them by not being a fool!
In the next adventure to be told we pass from the love (or tameness) of the turtle to the rage of the vulture. It may be remarked in passing that the vernacular name of the dove I have described is Torcasa, which I take it is a corruption of Tortola, the name first given to it by the early colonists on account of its slight resemblance to the turtle-dove of Europe.
Then, as to the vulture, it was not a true vulture nor a strictly true eagle, but a carrion-hawk, a bird the size of a small eagle, blackish brown in colour with a white neck and breast suffused with brown and spotted with black; also it had a very big eagle-shaped beak, and claws not so strong as an eagle's nor so weak as a vulture's. In its habits it was both eagle and vulture, as it fed on dead flesh, and was also a hunter and killer of animals and birds, especially of the weakly and young. A somewhat destructive creature to poultry and young sucking lambs and pigs. Its feeding habits were, in fact, very like those of the raven, and its voice, too, was raven-like, or rather like that of the carrion-crow at his loudest and harshest. Considering the character of this big rapacious bird, the Polyborus tharus of naturalists and the carancho of the natives, it may seem strange that a pair were allowed to nest and live for years in our plantation, but in those days people were singularly tolerant not only of injurious birds and beasts but even of beings of their own species of predaceous habits.
On the outskirts of our old peach orchard, described in a former chapter, there was a solitary tree of a somewhat singular shape, standing about forty yards from the others on the edge of a piece of waste weedy land. It was a big old tree like the others, and had a smooth round trunk standing about fourteen feet high and throwing out branches all round, so that its upper part had the shape of an open inverted umbrella. And in the convenient hollow formed by the circle of branches the caranchos had built their huge nest, composed of sticks, lumps of turf, dry bones of sheep and other animals, pieces of rope and raw hide, and any other object they could carry. The nest was their home; they roosted in it by night and visited it at odd times during the day, usually bringing a bleached bone or thistle- stalk or some such object to add to the pile.
Our birds never attacked the fowls, and were not offensive or obtrusive, but kept to their own end of the plantation furthest away from the buildings. They only came when an animal was killed for meat, and would then hang about, keeping a sharp eye on the proceedings and watching their chance. This would come when the carcass was dressed and lights and other portions thrown to the dogs; then the carancho would swoop down like a kite, and snatching up the meat with his beak would rise to a height of twenty or thirty yards in the air, and dropping his prize would deftly catch it again in his claws and soar away to feed on it at leisure. I was never tired of admiring this feat of the carancho, which is, I believe, unique in birds of prey.
The big nest in the old inverted-umbrella-shaped peach tree had a great attraction for me; I used often to visit it and wonder if I would ever have the power of getting up to it. Oh, what a delight it would be to get up there, above the nest, and look down into the great basin-like hollow lined with sheep's wool and see the eggs, bigger than turkey's eggs, all marbled with deep red, or creamy white splashed with blood-red! For I had seen carancho eggs brought in by a gaucho, and I was ambitious to take a clutch from a nest with my own hands. It was true I had been told by my mother that if I wanted wild birds' eggs I was never to take more than one from a nest, unless it was of some injurious species. And injurious the carancho certainly was, in spite of his good behaviour when at home. On one of my early rides on my pony I had seen a pair of them, and I think they were our own birds, furiously attacking a weak and sickly ewe; she had refused to lie down to be killed, and they were on her neck, beating and tearing at her face and trying to pull her down. Also I had seen a litter of little pigs a sow had brought forth on the plain attacked by six or seven caranchos, and found on approaching the spot that they had killed half of them (about six, I think), and were devouring them at some distance from the old pig and the survivors of the litter. But how could I climb the tree and get over the rim of the huge nest? And I was afraid of the birds, they looked so unspeakably savage and formidable whenever I went near them. But my desire to get the eggs was over-mastering, and when it was spring and I had reason to think that eggs were being laid, I went oftener than ever to watch and wait for an opportunity. And one evening just after sunset I could not see the birds anywhere about and thought my chance had now come. I managed to swarm up the smooth trunk to the branches, and then with wildly beating heart began the task of trying to get through the close branches and to work my way over the huge rim of the nest. Just then I heard the harsh grating cry of the bird, and peering through the leaves in the direction it came from I caught sight of the two birds flying furiously towards me, screaming again as they came nearer. Then terror seized me, and down I went through the branches, and catching hold of the lowest one managed to swing myself clear and dropped to the ground. It was a good long drop, but I fell on a soft turf, and springing to my feet fled to the shelter of the orchard and then on towards the house, without ever looking back to see if they were following.
That was my only attempt to raid the nest, and from that time the birds continued in peaceful possession of it, until it came into some person's mind that this huge nest was detrimental to the tree, and was the cause of its producing so little fruit compared with any other tree, and the nest was accordingly pulled down, and the birds forsook the place.
In the description in a former chapter of our old peach trees in their blossoming time I mentioned the paroquets which occasionally visited us but had their breeding-place some distance away. This bird was one of the two common parrots of the district, the other larger species being the Patagonian parrot, Conarus patagonus, the Loro barranquero or Cliff Parrot of the natives. In my early years this bird was common on the treeless pampas extending for hundreds of miles south of Buenos Ayres as well as in Patagonia, and bred in holes it excavated in cliffs and steep banks at the side of lakes and rivers. These breeding-sites were far south of my home, and I did not visit them until my boyhood's days were over.
In winter these birds had a partial migration to the north: at that season we were visited by flocks, and as a child it was a joy to me when the resounding screams of the travelling parrots, heard in the silence long before the birds became visible in the sky, announced their approach. Then, when they appeared flying at a moderate height, how strange and beautiful they looked, with long pointed wings and long graduated tails, in their sombre green plumage touched with yellow, blue, and crimson colour! How I longed for a nearer acquaintance with these winter visitors and hoped they would settle on our trees! Sometimes they did settle to rest, perhaps to spend half a day or longer in the plantation; and sometimes, to my great happiness, a flock would elect to remain with us for whole days and weeks, feeding on the surrounding plain, coming at intervals to the trees during the day, and at night to roost. I used to go out on my pony to follow and watch the flock at feed, and wondered at their partiality for the bitter-tasting seeds of the wild pumpkin. This plant, which was abundant with us, produced an egg-shaped fruit about half the size of an ostrich's egg, with a hard shell-like rind, but the birds with their sharp iron-hard beaks would quickly break up the dry shell and feast on the pips, scattering the seed-shells about till the ground was whitened with them. When I approached the feeding flock on my pony the birds would rise up and, flying to and at me, hover in a compact crowd just above my head, almost deafening me with their angry screams.
The smaller bird, the paroquet, which was about the size of a turtle- dove, had a uniform rich green colour above and ashy-grey beneath, and, like most parrots, it nested in trees. It is one of the most social birds I know; it lives all the year round in communities and builds huge nests of sticks near together as in a rookery, each nest having accommodation for two or three to half-a-dozen pairs. Each pair has an entrance and nest cavity of its own in the big structure.
The only breeding-place in our neighbourhood was in a grove or remains of an ancient ruined plantation at an estancia house, about nine miles from us, owned by an Englishman named Ramsdale. Here there was a colony of about a couple of hundred birds, and the dozen or more trees they had built on were laden with their great nests, each one containing as much material as would have filled a cart.
Mr. Ramsdale was not our nearest English neighbour—the one to be described in another chapter; nor was he a man we cared much about, and his meagre establishment was not attractive, as his old slatternly native housekeeper and the other servants were allowed to do just what they liked. But he was English and a neighbour, and my parents made it a point of paying him an occasional visit, and I always managed to go with them—certainly not to see Mr. Ramsdale, who had nothing to say to a shy little boy and whose hard red face looked the face of a hard drinker. My visits were to the paroquets exclusively. Oh, why, thought I many and many a time, did not these dear green people come over to us and have their happy village in our trees! Yet when I visited them they didn't like it; no sooner would I run out to the grove where the nests were than the place would be in an uproar. Out and up they would rush, to unite in a flock and hover shrieking over my head, and the commotion would last until I left them.
On our return late one afternoon in early spring from one of our rare visits to Mr. Ramsdale, we witnessed a strange thing. The plain at that place was covered with a dense growth of cardoon-thistle or wild artichoke, and leaving the estancia house in our trap, we followed the cattle tracks as there was no road on that side. About half-way home we saw a troop of seven or eight deer in an open green space among the big grey thistle-bushes, but instead of uttering their whistling alarm-cry and making off at our approach they remained at the same spot, although we passed within forty yards of them. The troop was composed of two bucks engaged in a furious fight, and five or six does walking round and round the two fighters. The bucks kept their heads so low down that their noses were almost touching the ground, while with their horns locked together they pushed violently, and from time to time one would succeed in forcing the other ten or twenty feet back. Then a pause, then another violent push, then with horns still together they would move sideways, round and round, and so on until we left them behind and lost sight of them.
This spectacle greatly excited us at the time and was vividly recalled several months afterwards when one of our gaucho neighbours told us of a curious thing he had just seen. He had been out on that cardoon- covered spot where we had seen the fighting deer, and at that very spot in the little green space he had come upon the skeletons of two deer with their horns interlocked.
Tragedies of this kind in the wild animal world have often been recorded, but they are exceedingly rare on the pampas, as the smooth few-pronged antlers of the native deer, corvus campestris, are not so liable to get hopelessly locked as in many other species.
Deer were common in our district in those days, and were partial to land overgrown with cardoon thistle, which in the absence of trees and thickets afforded them some sort of cover. I seldom rode to that side without getting a sight of a group of deer, often looking exceedingly conspicuous in their bright fawn colour as they stood gazing at the intruder amidst the wide waste of grey cardoon bushes.
These rough plains were also the haunt of the rhea, our ostrich, and it was here that I first had a close sight of this greatest and most unbird-like bird of our continent. I was eight years old then, when one afternoon in late summer I was just setting off for a ride on my pony, when I was told to go out on the east side till I came to the cardoon-covered land about a mile beyond the shepherd's ranch. The shepherd was wanted in the plantation and could not go to the flock just yet, and I was told to look for the flock and turn it towards home.
I found the flock just where I had been told to look for it, the sheep very widely scattered, and some groups of a dozen or two to a hundred were just visible at a distance among the rough bushes. Just where these furthest sheep were grazing there was a scattered troop of seventy or eighty horses grazing too, and when I rode to that spot I all at once found myself among a lot of rheas, feeding too among the sheep and horses. Their grey plumage being so much like the cardoon bushes in colour had prevented me from seeing them before I was right among them.
The strange thing was that they paid not the slightest attention to me, and pulling up my pony I sat staring in astonishment at them, particularly at one, a very big one and nearest to me, engaged in leisurely pecking at the clover plants growing among the big prickly thistle leaves, and as it seemed carefully selecting the best sprays.
What a great noble-looking bird it was and how beautiful in its loose grey-and-white plumage, hanging like a picturesquely-worn mantle about its body! Why were they so tame? I wondered. The sight of a mounted gaucho, even at a great distance, will invariably set them off at their topmost speed; yet here I was within a dozen yards of one of them, with several others about me, all occupied in examining the herbage and selecting the nicest-looking leaves to pluck, just as if I was not there at all! I suppose it was because I was only a small boy on a small horse and was not associated in the ostrich brain with the wild-looking gaucho on his big animal charging upon him with a deadly purpose. Presently I went straight at the one near me, and he then raised his head and neck and moved carelessly away to a distance of a few yards, then began cropping the clover once more. I rode at him again, putting my pony to a trot, and when within two yards of him he all at once swung his body round in a quaint way towards me, and breaking into a sort of dancing trot brushed past me.
Pulling up again and looking back I found he was ten or twelve yards behind me, once more quietly engaged in cropping clover leaves!
Again and again this bird, and one of the others I rode at, practised the same pretty trick, first appearing perfectly unconcerned at my presence and then, when I made a charge at them, with just one little careless movement placing themselves a dozen yards behind me.
But this same trick of the rhea is wonderful to see when the hunted bird is spent with running and is finally overtaken by one of the hunters who has perhaps lost the bolas with which he captures his quarry, and who endeavours to place himself side by side with it so as to reach it with his knife. It seems an easy thing to do: the bird is plainly exhausted, panting, his wings hanging, as he lopes on, yet no sooner is the man within striking distance than the sudden motion comes into play, and the bird as by a miracle is now behind instead of at the side of the horse. And before the horse going at top speed can be reined in and turned round, the rhea has had time to recover his wind and get a hundred yards away or more. It is on account of this tricky instinct of the rhea that the gauchos say, "El avestruz es el mas gaucho de los animales," which means that the ostrich, in its resourcefulness and the tricks it practises to save itself when hard pressed, is as clever as the gaucho knows himself to be.
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.
The happiest time of my boyhood was at that early period, a little past the age of six, when I had my own pony to ride on, and was allowed to stay on his back just as long and go as far from home as I liked. I was like the young bird when on first quitting the nest it suddenly becomes conscious of its power to fly. My early flying days were, however, soon interrupted, when my mother took me on my first visit to Buenos Ayres; that is to say, the first I remember, as I must have been taken there once before as an infant in arms, since we lived too far from town for any missionary-clergyman to travel all that distance just to baptize a little baby. Buenos Ayres is now the wealthiest, most populous, Europeanized city in South America: what it was like at that time these glimpses into a far past will serve to show. Coming as a small boy of an exceptionally impressionable mind, from that green plain where people lived the simple pastoral life, everything I saw in the city impressed me deeply, and the sights which impressed me the most are as vivid in my mind to-day as they ever were. I was a solitary little boy in my rambles about the streets, for though I had a younger brother who was my only playmate, he was not yet five, and too small to keep me company in my walks. Nor did I mind having no one with me. Very, very early in my boyhood I had acquired the habit of going about alone to amuse myself in my own way, and it was only after years, when my age was about twelve, that my mother told me how anxious this singularity in me used to make her. She would miss me when looking out to see what the children were doing, and I would be called and searched for, to be found hidden away somewhere in the plantation. Then she began to keep an eye on me, and when I was observed stealing off she would secretly follow and watch me, standing motionless among the tall weeds or under the trees by the half-hour, staring at vacancy. This distressed her very much; then to her great relief and joy she discovered that I was there with a motive which she could understand and appreciate: that I was watching some living thing, an insect perhaps, but oftener a bird—a pair of little scarlet flycatchers building a nest of lichen on a peach tree, or some such beautiful thing. And as she loved all living things herself she was quite satisfied that I was not going queer in my head, for that was what she had been fearing.
The strangeness of the streets was a little too much for me at the start, and I remember that on first venturing out by myself a little distance from home I got lost. In despair of ever finding my way back I began to cry, hiding my face against a post at a street corner, and was there soon surrounded by quite a number of passers-by; then a policeman came up, with brass buttons on his blue coat and a sword at his side, and taking me by the arm he asked me in a commanding voice where I lived—the name of the street and the number of the house. I couldn't tell him; then I began to get frightened on account of his sword and big black moustache and loud rasping voice, and suddenly ran away, and after running for about six or eight minutes found myself back at home, to my surprise and joy.
The house where we stayed with English friends was near the front, or what was then the front, that part of the city which faced the Plata river, a river which was like the sea, with no visible shore beyond; and like the sea it was tidal, and differed only in its colour, which was a muddy red instead of blue or green. The house was roomy, and like most of the houses at that date had a large courtyard paved with red tiles and planted with small lemon trees and flowering shrubs of various kinds. The streets were straight and narrow, paved with round boulder stones the size of a football, the pavements with brick or flagstones, and so narrow they would hardly admit of more than two persons walking abreast. Along the pavements on each side of the street were rows of posts placed at a distance of ten yards apart. These strange-looking rows of posts, which foreigners laughed to see, were no doubt the remains of yet ruder times, when ropes of hide were stretched along the side of the pavements to protect the foot- passengers from runaway horses, wild cattle driven by wild men from the plains, and other dangers of the narrow streets. As they were then paved the streets must have been the noisiest in the world, on account of the immense numbers of big springless carts in them. Imagine the thunderous racket made by a long procession of these carts, when they were returning empty, and the drivers, as was often the case, urged their horses to a gallop, and they bumped and thundered over the big round stones!
Just opposite the house we stayed at there was a large church, one of the largest of the numerous churches of the city, and one of my most vivid memories relates to a great annual festival at the church—that of the patron saint's day. It had been open to worshippers all day, but the chief service was held about three o'clock in the afternoon; at all events it was at that hour when a great attendance of fashionable people took place. I watched them as they came in couples, families and small groups, in every case the ladies, beautifully dressed, attended by their cavaliers. At the door of the church the gentleman would make his bow and withdraw to the street before the building, where a sort of outdoor gathering was formed of all those who had come as escorts to the ladies, and where they would remain until the service was over. The crowd in the street grew and grew until there were about four or five hundred gentlemen, mostly young, in the gathering, all standing in small groups, conversing in an animated way, so that the street was filled with the loud humming sound of their blended voices. These men were all natives, all of the good or upper class of the native society, and all dressed exactly alike in the fashion of that time. It was their dress and the uniform appearance of so large a number of persons, most of them with young, handsome, animated faces, that fascinated me and kept me on the spot gazing at them until the big bells began to thunder at the conclusion of the service and the immense concourse of gaily-dressed ladies swarmed out, and immediately the meeting broke up, the gentlemen hurrying back to meet them.
They all wore silk hats and the glossiest black broadcloth, not even a pair of trousers of any other shade was seen; and all wore the scarlet silk or fine cloth waistcoat which, at that period, was considered the right thing for every citizen of the republic to wear; also, in lieu of buttonhole, a scarlet ribbon pinned to the lapel of the coat. It was a pretty sight, and the concourse reminded me of a flock of military starlings, a black or dark-plumaged bird with a scarlet breast, one of my feathered favourites.
My rambles were almost always on the front, since I could walk there a mile or two from home, north or south, without getting lost, always with the vast expanse of water on one hand, with many big ships looking dim in the distance, and numerous lighters or belanders coming from them with cargoes of merchandise which they unloaded into carts, these going out a quarter of a mile in the shallow water to meet them. Then there were the water-carts going and coming in scores and hundreds, for at that period there was no water supply to the houses, and every house-holder had to buy muddy water by the bucket at his own door from the watermen.
One of the most attractive spots to me was the congregating place of the lavanderas, south of my street. Here on the broad beach under the cliff one saw a whiteness like a white cloud, covering the ground for a space of about a third of a mile; and the cloud, as one drew near, resolved itself into innumerable garments, sheets and quilts, and other linen pieces, fluttering from long lines, and covering the low rocks washed clean by the tide and the stretches of green turf between. It was the spot where the washerwomen were allowed to wash all the dirty linen of Buenos Ayres in public. All over the ground the women, mostly negresses, were seen on their knees, beside the pools among the rocks, furiously scrubbing and pounding away at their work, and like all negresses they were exceedingly vociferous, and their loud gabble, mingled with yells and shrieks of laughter, reminded me of the hubbub made by a great concourse of gulls, ibises, godwits, geese, and other noisy water-fowl on some marshy lake. It was a wonderfully animated scene, and drew me to it again and again: I found, however, that it was necessary to go warily among these women, as they looked with suspicion at idling boys, and sometimes, when I picked my way among the spread garments, I was sharply ordered off. Then, too, they often quarrelled over their right to certain places and spaces among themselves; then very suddenly their hilarious gabble would change to wild cries of anger and torrents of abuse. By and by I discovered that their greatest rages and worst language were when certain young gentlemen of the upper classes visited the spot to amuse themselves by baiting the lavanderas. The young gentleman would saunter about in an absent-minded manner and presently walk right on to a beautifully embroidered and belaced nightdress or other dainty garment spread out to dry on the sward or rock, and, standing on it, calmly proceed to take out and light a cigarette. Instantly the black virago would be on her feet confronting him and pouring out a torrent of her foulest expressions and deadliest curses. He, in a pretended rage, would reply in even worse language. That would put her on her mettle; for now all her friends and foes scattered about the ground would suspend their work to listen with all their ears; and the contest of words growing louder and fiercer would last until the combatants were both exhausted and unable to invent any more new and horrible expressions of opprobrium to hurl at each other. Then the insulted young gentleman would kick the garment away in a fury and hurling the unfinished cigarette in his adversary's face would walk off with his nose in the air.
I laugh to recall these unseemly word-battles on the beach, but they were shocking to me when I first heard them as a small, innocent- minded boy, and it only made the case worse when I was assured that the young gentleman was only acting a part, that the extreme anger he exhibited, which might have served as an excuse for using such language, was all pretence.
Another favourite pastime of these same idle, rich young gentlemen offended me as much as the one I have related. The night-watchmen, called Serenos, of that time interested me in an extraordinary way. When night came it appeared that the fierce policemen, with their swords and brass buttons, were no longer needed to safeguard the people, and their place in the streets was taken by a quaint, frowsy- looking body of men, mostly old, some almost decrepit, wearing big cloaks and carrying staffs and heavy iron lanterns with a tallow candle alight inside. But what a pleasure it was to lie awake at night and listen to their voices calling the hours! The calls began at the stroke of eleven, and then from beneath the window would come the wonderful long drawling call of Las on—ce han da—do y se—re—no, which means eleven of the clock and all serene, but if clouded the concluding word would be nu—bla—do, and so on, according to the weather. From all the streets, from all over the town, the long-drawn calls would float to my listening ears, with infinite variety in the voices—the high and shrill, the falsetto, the harsh, raucous note like the caw of the carrion crow, the solemn, booming bass, and then some fine, rich, pure voice that soared heavenwards above all the others and was like the pealing notes of an organ.
I loved the poor night-watchmen and their cries, and it grieved my little soft heart to hear that it was considered fine sport by the rich young gentlemen to sally forth at night and do battle with them, and to deprive them of their staffs and lanterns, which they took home and kept as trophies.
Another human phenomenon which annoyed and shocked my tender mind, like that of the contests on the beach between young gentlemen and washerwomen, was the multitude of beggars which infested the town. These were not like our dignified beggar on horseback, with his red poncho, spurs and tall straw hat, who rode to your gate, and having received his tribute, blessed you and rode away to the next estancia. These city beggars on the pavement were the most brutal, even fiendish, looking men I had ever seen. Most of them were old soldiers, who, having served their ten, fifteen, or twenty years, according to the nature of the crime for which they had been condemned to the army, had been discharged or thrown out to live like carrion-hawks on what they could pick up. Twenty times a day at least you would hear the iron gate opening from the courtyard into the street swung open, followed by the call or shout of the beggar demanding charity in the name of God. Outside you could not walk far without being confronted by one of these men, who would boldly square himself in front of you on the narrow pavement and beg for alms. If you had no change and said, "Perdon, por Dios," he would scowl and let you pass; but if you looked annoyed or disgusted, or ordered him out of the way, or pushed by without a word, he would glare at you with a concentrated rage which seemed to say, "Oh, to have you down at my mercy, bound hand and foot, a sharp knife in my hand!" And this would be followed by a blast of the most horrible language.
One day I witnessed a very strange thing, the action of a dog, by the waterside. It was evening and the beach was forsaken; cartmen, fishermen, boatmen all gone, and I was the only idler left on the rocks; but the tide was coming in, rolling quite big waves on to the rocks, and the novel sight of the waves, the freshness, the joy of it, kept me at that spot, standing on one of the outermost rocks not yet washed over by the water. By and by a gentleman, followed by a big dog, came down on to the beach and stood at a distance of forty or fifty yards from me, while the dog bounded forward over the flat, slippery rocks and through pools of water until he came to my side, and sitting on the edge of the rock began gazing intently down at the water. He was a big, shaggy, round-headed animal, with a greyish coat with some patches of light reddish colour on it; what his breed was I cannot say, but he looked somewhat like a sheep-dog or an otter-hound. Suddenly he plunged in, quite disappearing from sight, but quickly reappeared with a big shad of about three and a half or four pounds' weight in his jaws. Climbing on to the rock he dropped the fish, which he did not appear to have injured much, as it began floundering about in an exceedingly lively manner. I was astonished and looked back at the dog's master; but there he stood in the same place, smoking and paying no attention to what his animal was doing. Again the dog plunged in and brought out a second big fish and dropped it on the flat rock, and again and again he dived, until there were five big shads all floundering about on the wet rock and likely soon to be washed back into the water. The shad is a common fish in the Plata and the best to eat of all its fishes, resembling the salmon in its rich flavour, and is eagerly watched for when it comes up from the sea by the Buenos Ayres fishermen, just as our fishermen watch for mackerel on our coasts. But on this evening the beach was deserted by every one, watchers included, and the fish came and swarmed along the rocks, and there was no one to catch them—not even some poor hungry idler to pounce upon and carry off the five fishes the dog had captured. One by one I saw them washed back into the water, and presently the dog, hearing his master whistling to him, bounded away.
For many years after this incident I failed to find any one who had even seen or heard of a dog catching fish. Eventually, in reading I met with an account of fishing-dogs in Newfoundland and other countries.
One other strange adventure met with on the front remains to be told. It was about eleven o'clock in the morning and I was on the parade, walking north, pausing from time to time to look over the sea-wall to watch the flocks of small birds that came to feed on the beach below. Presently my attention was drawn to a young man walking on before me, pausing and peering too from time to time over the wall, and when he did so throwing something at the small birds. I ran on and overtook him, and was rather taken aback at his wonderfully fine appearance. He was like one of the gentlemen of the gathering before the church, described a few pages back, and wore a silk hat and fashionable black coat and trousers and scarlet silk waistcoat; he was also a remarkably handsome young gentleman, with a golden-brown curly beard and moustache and dark liquid eyes that studied my face with a half-amused curiosity when I looked up at him. In one hand he carried a washleather bag by its handle, and holding a pebble in his right hand he watched the birds, the small parties of crested song sparrows, yellow house sparrows, siskins, field finches, and other kinds, and from time to time he would hurl a pebble at the bird he had singled out forty yards down below us on the rocks. I did not see him actually hit a bird, but his precision was amazing, for almost invariably the missile, thrown from such a distance at so minute an object, appeared to graze the feathers and to miss killing by but a fraction of an inch.
I followed him for some distance, my wonder and curiosity growing every minute to see such a superior-looking person engaged in such a pastime. For it is a fact that the natives do not persecute small birds. On the contrary, they despise the aliens in the land who shoot and trap them. Besides, if he wanted small birds for any purpose, why did he try to get them by throwing pebbles at them? As he did not order me off, but looked in a kindly way at me every little while, with a slight smile on his face, I at length ventured to tell him that he would never get a bird that way—that it would be impossible at that distance to hit one with a small pebble. "Oh, no, not impossible," he returned, smiling and walking on, still with an eye on the rocks. "Well, you haven't hit one yet," I was bold enough to say, and at that he stopped, and putting his finger and thumb in his waistcoat pocket he pulled out a dead male siskin and put it in my hands.
This was the bird called "goldfinch" by the English resident in La Plata, and to the Spanish it is also goldfinch; it is, however, a siskin, Chrysomitris magellanica, and has a velvet-black head, the rest of its plumage being black, green, and shining yellow. It was one of my best-loved birds, but I had never had one in my hand, dead or alive, before, and now its wonderful unimagined loveliness, its graceful form, and the exquisitely pure flower-like yellow hue affected me with a delight so keen that I could hardly keep from tears.
After gloating a few moments over it, touching it with my finger-tips and opening the little black and gold wings, I looked up pleadingly and begged him to let me keep it. He smiled and shook his head: he would not waste his breath talking; all his energy was to be spent in hurling pebbles at other lovely little birds.
"Oh, senor, will you not give it to me?" I pleaded still; and then, with sudden hope, "Are you going to sell it?"
He laughed, and taking it from my hand put it back in his waistcoat pocket; then, with a pleasant smile and a nod to say that the interview was now over, he went on his way.
Standing on the spot where he left me, and still bitterly regretting that I had failed to get the bird, I watched him until he disappeared from sight in the distance, walking towards the suburb of Palermo; and a mystery he remains to this day, the one and only Argentine gentleman, a citizen of the Athens of South America, amusing himself by killing little birds with pebbles. But I do not know that it was an amusement. He had perhaps in some wild moment made a vow to kill so many siskins in that way, or a bet to prove his skill in throwing a pebble; or he might have been practising a cure for some mysterious deadly malady, prescribed by some wandering physician from Bagdad or Ispaham; or, more probable still, some heartless, soulless woman he was in love with had imposed this fantastical task on him.
Perhaps the most wonderful thing I saw during that first eventful visit to the capital was the famed Don Eusebio, the court jester or fool of the President or Dictator Rosas, the "Nero of South America," who lived in his palace at Palermo, just outside the city. I had been sent with my sisters and little brother to spend the day at the house of an Anglo-Argentine family in another part of the town, and we were in the large courtyard playing with the children of the house when some one opened a window above us and called out, "Don Eusebio!" That conveyed nothing to me, but the little boys of the house knew what it meant; it meant that if we went quickly out to the street we might catch a glimpse of the great man in all his glory. At all events, they jumped up, flinging their toys away, and rushed to the street door, and we after them. Coming out we found quite a crowd of lookers-on, and then down the street, in his general's dress—for it was one of the Dictator's little jokes to make his fool a general—all scarlet, with a big scarlet three-cornered hat surmounted by an immense aigrette of scarlet plumes, came Don Eusebio. He marched along with tremendous dignity, his sword at his side, and twelve soldiers, also in scarlet, his bodyguard, walking six on each side of him with drawn swords in their hands.