In the days of my childhood, some ingenious person had devised a game known as "Educational Quartettes." These "quartettes" were merely another form of the game of "Happy Families," which seems to make so persistent an appeal to the young. Every one must be familiar with it. The underlying principle is that any possessor of one card of any family may ask another player for any missing card of the suit; in this way the whereabouts of the cards can be gradually ascertained, and "Mr. Bones the Butcher" finds himself eventually reunited, doubtless to his great joy, to his worthy, if unprepossessing spouse, Mrs. Bones, and to his curiously hideous offspring, Miss Bones and Master Bones. The same holds good with regard to the other families, those of Mr. Bun the Baker, Mr. Pots the Painter, and their friends, and we can only hope that these families make up in moral worth for their painful lack of physical attractions. "Educational Quartettes" were played in exactly the same way. At the age of six, I played them every night with my sisters and brother, and the set we habitually used was "English Ecclesiastical Architecture." In lieu of Mr. Bung the Brewer, we had "Norman Style, 1066-1145." Mrs. Bung was replaced by "Massive Columns," Miss Bung by "Round Arches," Master Bung by "Dog-tooth Mouldings," each one with its picture. The next Quartette was "Early English, 1189-1307." No. 2 being "Clustered Columns," No. 3 "Pointed Arches," No. 4 "Lancet Windows," each one again with its picture, and so on through the later styles. We had none of us the least idea that we were being educated; we thought that we were merely playing a game, but the information got insensibly absorbed through ear and eye, and remained there.
Never shall I forget the astonishment of a clergyman who was showing his church to my youngest brother and myself, he then being aged nine, and I eleven. The Vicar observed that, had we been older, we would have found his church very interesting architecturally, when my nine-year-old brother remarked quite casually, "Where we are, it is decorated 1307-1377, but by the organ it's Early English, 1189-1307." The clergyman, no doubt, thought him a precocious little prig, but from perpetually playing Architectural Quartettes, this little piece of information came instinctively from him, for he had absorbed it unconsciously.
Another set we habitually played was entitled "Famous Travellers," and even after the lapse of fifty-six years, many of the names still stick in my memory. For instance under "North Africa" came 2, Jules Gerard; 3, Earth; 4, Denham and Clapperton. Jules Gerard's name was familiar to me, for was he not, like the illustrious Tartarin de Tarascon, a tueur de lions? It was, indeed, Jules Gerard's example which first fired the imagination of the immortal Tarasconnais, though personally I confess to a slight feeling of disappointment at learning from Gerard's biographer that, in spite of his grandiloquent title, his total bag of lions in eleven years was only twenty-five. As to the German, Heinrich Earth, my knowledge of him is of the slightest, and I plead guilty to complete ignorance about Denham and Clapperton's exploits, though their names seem more suggestive of a firm of respectable family solicitors or of a small railway station on a branch line, than of two distinguished travellers. The main point is that after an interval of more than half a century, these names should have stuck in my memory, thus testifying to the educational value of the game. I wish that some educationalist, taking advantage of the proved liking of children for this form of game, would revive these Quartettes, for there is an immense advantage in a child learning unconsciously. I think that geography could be easily taught in this way; for instance: 1. France (capital Paris). 2. Lyons and Marseilles. 3. Bordeaux and Rouen. 4. Lille and Strasbourg. Coloured maps or views of the various cities would be indispensable, for I still maintain that a child remembers through its eyes. In my youth I was given a most excellent little manual of geography entitled Near Home, embellished with many crude woodcuts. The book had admittedly an extremely string religious bias, but it was written in a way calculated to interest the young, and thanks to the woodcuts most of its information got permanently absorbed. Perhaps some one with greater experience in such matters than I can pretend to, may devise a more effectual scheme for combating the crass ignorance of most English people about geography.
Should one ask the average Englishman where Bermuda is, he would be certain to reply, "Somewhere in the West Indies," which is exactly where it is not.
This fascinating archipelago of coral islands forms an isolated little group in the North Atlantic, six hundred miles from the United States, three thousand miles from Europe, and twelve hundred miles north of the West Indies. Bermuda is the second oldest British Colonial possession, ranking only after Newfoundland, which was discovered by John Cabot in 1497, and occupied in the name of Queen Elizabeth in 1583. Sir George Somers being wrecked on Bermuda in 1609, at once retaliated by annexing the group, though, as there is not one drop of water on any of the islands, there were naturally no aboriginal inhabitants to dispute his claim.
Bermuda is to me a perpetual economic puzzle, for it seems to defy triumphantly all the rules which govern other places. Here is a group of islands whose total superficies is only 12,500 acres, of which little more than one-tenth is capable of cultivation. There is no fresh water whatever, the inhabitants being entirely dependent on the rainfall for their supply; and yet some 22,000 people, white and coloured, live there in great prosperity, and there is no poverty whatever. I almost hesitate before adding that there are no taxes in Bermuda beyond a 10 per cent. ad valorem duty on everything imported into the islands except foodstuffs; for the housing accommodation is already rather overstrained, and should this fact become generally known, I apprehend that there would be such an influx into Bermuda from the United Kingdom of persons desirous of escaping from our present crushing burden of taxation, that the many caves of the archipelago would all have to be fitted up as lodging-houses. The real explanation of the prosperity of the islands is probably to be found in the wonderful fertility of the soil, which produces three crops a year, and in the immense tourist traffic during the winter months.
The islands were originally settled in rather a curious way. Certain families, my own amongst them, took shares in the "Bermuda Company," and each undertook to plant a little "tribe" there. These "tribes" seem to have come principally from Norfolk and Lincolnshire, as is shown by the names of the principal island families. The Triminghams, the Tuckers, the Inghams, the Pennistones, and the Outerbridges have all been there since the early sixteen hundreds. Probably nowhere in the world is the colour-line drawn more rigidly than in Bermuda; white and coloured never meet socially, and there are separate schools for white and black children. This is, of course, due to the instinct of self-preservation; in so small a community it would have been impossible otherwise for the white settlers to keep their blood pure for three hundred years. The names of the different parishes show the families who originally took shares in the Bermuda Company; Pembroke, Devonshire, Hamilton, Warwick, Paget, and Somerset amongst others.
They are the most delightful islands imaginable. The vegetation is sub-tropical rather than tropical, and all the islands are clothed with a dense growth of Bermudian cedar (really a juniper), and of oleander. I have never seen a sea of deeper sapphire-blue, and this is reflected not from above, but from below, and is due to the bed of white coral sand beneath the water. On the dullest day the water keeps its deep-blue tint. When the oleanders are in bloom, the milk-white houses, peeping out from this sheet of rose-pink, with the deep indigo of the sea, and the sombre green of the cedars, make one of the most enchanting pictures that it is possible to imagine.
Bermuda has distinctly an island climate, which is perhaps fortunate, as the inhabitants are entirely dependent on rain-water. With a north wind there is brilliant sunshine tempered by occasional terrific downpours. With a south wind there is a perpetual warm drizzle varied with heavy showers. With a west wind the weather is apt to be uncertain, but I was assured that an east wind brought settled, fine weather. I never recollect an east wind in Bermuda, but my climatic reminiscences only extend to the winter months.
Bermuda is the most northern coral-atoll existing, and is the only place where I have actually seen the coral insect at work on the reefs. He is not an insect at all, but a sort of black slug. These curious creatures have all an inherited tendency to suicide, for when the coral-worm gets above the tide-level he dies. Still they work bravely away, obsessed with the idea of raising their own particular reef well out of the water at the cost of their own lives. The coral of a reef is an ugly brown substance which has been inelegantly compared to a decayed tooth. Not until the coral is pulverised does it take on its milk-white colour. I am told by learned people that Bermuda, like most coral islands, is of Aolian formation; that is, that the powdered coral has been gradually deposited by the winds of countless centuries until it has risen high out of the water. Farther south in the tropics, we know what happens. Nature has given the cocoa-nut the power of preserving its vitality almost indefinitely. The fallen nuts float on the sea and drift hither and thither. Once washed up on a beach and dried by the sun, the nut thrusts out little green suckers from those "eyes" which every one must have noticed on cocoa-nuts, anchors itself firmly into the soil, and in seven years will be bearing fruit. The fallen fronds decay and make soil, and so another island becomes gradually clothed with vegetation. In Bermuda the cedar replaces the cocoa-nut palm.
Fishing on the reefs in Bermuda is the best fun imaginable for persons not liable to sea-sickness. The fisherman has in his left hand a "water-glass," which is merely a stout box with the bottom filled in with plate-glass. The water-glass must be held below the ripple of the surface, which, by the way, requires a fair amount of muscular effort, when through the pane of glass, the sea-floor ten fathoms below is clearly visible. The coloured fish of Jamaica were neutral-tinted pigmies compared to the polychrome monsters on a Bermudian reef, and one could actually see them swallowing one's bait. One of the loveliest fishes that swims is the Bermudian angel-fish, who has the further merit of almost equalling a sole when fried. Shaped like a John Dory, he has a lemon-coloured body with a back of brilliant turquoise-blue, which gleams in the water like vivid blue enamel. He is further decorated with two long orange streamers. The angel-fish, having a very small mouth, must be fished for with a special hook. Then there is the queen-turbot, shaded from dark blue to palest turquoise, reminding one of Lord's Cricket Ground at an Eton and Harrow match; besides pink fish, scarlet fish, and orange fish, which when captured make the bottom-boards of the boat look like a Futurist landscape, not to speak of horrible, spotted, eel-like creatures whose bite is venomous. Reef-fishing is full of exciting incidents, but its chief attraction is the amazing beauty of the sea-gardens as seen through the water-glass, with sponges and sea-fans of every hue, gently waving in the current far below, as fish of all the colours of the rainbow play in and out of them in the clear blue water.
At Bermuda I found my old friend, the Guardsman, established at Government House as A.D.C. The island is one of the most ideal places in the world for boat-sailing, and the Guardsman had taken up yacht racing with his usual enthusiasm; atoning for his lack of experience by a persistent readiness to take the most hideous risks. The C.O. of the British battalion then stationed in Bermuda was rather hard put to it to find sufficient employment for his men, owing to the restricted area of the island. He encouraged, therefore, their engagements in civilian capacities, as it not only put money into the men's pockets, but kept them interested. At Government House we had soldier-gardeners, soldier-grooms, a soldier cowman, and a soldier-footman. The footman was a Southampton lad, and having been employed as a boy in a racing-yacht on the Solent, was a most useful man in a boat, and the Guardsman had accordingly annexed him as one of his racing crew, regardless of the fact that his labours afloat rather interfered with the specific domestic duties ashore for which he had been engaged by the Governor. A hundred-year-old yacht had for many years been handed over from Governor to Governor. The Lady of the Isles was Bermudian-rigged and Bermudian-built of cedar-wood. She had great beam, and was very lightly sparred, having a correspondingly small sail-area, but in spite of her great age she was still absolutely sound and was a splendid sea-boat. The Bermudian rig had been evolved to meet local conditions. Imagine a cutter with one single long spar in the place of a mast and topmast; this spar is stepped rather farther aft than it would be in an ordinary cutter, and there is one huge mainsail, "leg-of-mutton" shaped, with a boom but no gaff, and a very large jib. Owing to their big head-sails, and to their heavy keels, these Bermudian craft fore-reach like a steamer, and hardly ever miss stays. For the same reason they are very wet, as they bury themselves in the water. A handsome silver cup had been presented by a visitor for a yacht race right round the Bermudas, and the Guardsman managed to persuade the Governor to enter his centenarian yacht for this race, and to confide the sailing of her to himself. The ancient Lady of the Isles got a very liberal time allowance on account of her age and her small spread of canvas, but to every one but the Guardsman it seemed like entering a Clydesdale for the Derby. He had already formulated his plan, but kept it strictly to himself; for its success half a gale of wind was necessary. I agreed to sail with him, and as the start was to be at 6 a.m. I got up three mornings running at 4 a.m., and found myself with Joss, the Guardsman, and the soldier-footman on the water-front at half-past five in the morning, only to discover that there was not the faintest breath of air, and that Hamilton Harbour lay one unruffled sheet of lapis-lazuli in a flat calm; a state of things I should imagine unparallelled in "the still vexed Bermoothes." (How on earth did Shakespeare ever come to hear of Bermuda?) Three days running the race was declared "off," so when the Guardsman awoke me on the fourth morning with the news that it was blowing a full gale, I flatly declined to move, and turned over and went to sleep again, thereby saving my nerves a considerable trial.
Government House has a signal-station of its own, and at ten o'clock a message arrived announcing that the Lady of the Isles was leading by four miles. The Governor, who had never taken his old yacht's entry seriously, grew tremendously excited, ordered a light trap and two fast ponies round, and he and I, equipped with telescopes and sandwiches, spent the rest of the day tearing from one end of the island to the other, now on the south shore, now on the north shore, lying on our stomachs with telescopes to our eyes. It was quite true that the old centenarian had a tremendous lead, which was gradually decreased as the day went on. Still, the Guardsman, with face and hands the colour of a copper kettle, appeared triumphantly at dinner with a large silver cup which he presented with a bow to Lady Wodehouse, the Governor's wife, whilst the soldier-footman, burnt redder than the Reddest of Indians above his white shirt and tie, grinned sympathetically as he busied himself over his duties with the cauliflowers and potatoes. What had happened was this: the race was right round the islands, without any mark-boats to round. There was a very heavy sea running, and great breakers were washing over the reefs. The other yachts all headed for the "gate," or opening in the reefs, but the Guardsman, a keen hunting man, knowing that alone of the competitors the old Lady of the Isles had no "fin-keel," had determined to try and jump the reef. In spite of the frantic protests of the black pilot, he headed straight for the reef, and, watching his opportunity, put her fairly at it as a big sea swept along, and got over without a scrape, thus gaining six miles. It was a horribly risky proceeding, for had they bumped, the old yacht would have gone to pieces, and the big sharks lie hungrily off the reefs. The one chance for the broad-beamed old boat, with her small sail-area, was a gale of wind, for here her wonderful qualities as a sea-boat came in. I often sailed in races with the Guardsman in a smaller modern boat, much to the detriment of my nervous system, for he was incorrigible about taking risks, in which he was abetted by the soldier-footman, a sporting youth who, being always given a pecuniary interest in the races, was quite willing to take chances. The Guardsman, as a hunting man, never seemed to realise that a yacht had not the same jumping powers as a horse, and that a reef was a somewhat formidable barrier to tackle.
Owing to Bermudian boats being so "wet," one always landed soaked to the skin, and in any town but Hamilton, people would have stared at seeing three drowned rats in white garments, clinging like tights, making their dripping way home through the streets; but there it is such an everyday occurrence that no one even turned their heads; and, as the soldier-footman was fond of observing, "It's comfortable feeling as 'ow you're so wet that you can't get no wetter no'ow."
Bermuda has its own little Parliament of thirty-six members, the oldest Parliament in the New World. It really is an ideal Chamber, for every one of the thirty-six members sit on the Government side; there is no Opposition. The electors do not seem to favour youthful representatives, for the heads of the legislators were all white or grey, and there seemed in the atmosphere a wholesome mistrust of innovations. There was great popular excitement over a Bill for permitting the use of motor-cars in the islands, a Bill to which public opinion was dead opposed. There was some reason in this opposition. The roads in Bermuda are excellent, but they are all made of coral, which becomes very slippery when wet. The roads twist a great deal, and the island is hilly, and the farmers complained that they could never get their great wagons of vegetables (locally called "garden-truck") down to the harbour in safety should motor-cars be permitted. I well remember one white-headed old gentleman thundering out: "Our fathers got on without all these new-fangled notions, and what was good enough for my father is good enough for me, Mr. Speaker," a sentiment which provoked loud outbursts of applause. Another patriarch observed: "As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, is our motto in Bermuda, Mr. Speaker," a confession of faith which was received by the House with rapturous enthusiasm; so, by thirty-three votes to three, all motors were declared illegal in the islands.
I do not apprehend that there will ever be a shortage of building materials in Bermuda, for this is how a house is built. The whole formation being of coral, the stones are quarried on the actual site of the house, the hole thus created being cemented and used as a cistern for the rain-water from the roof. The accommodating coral is as soft as cheese when first cut, but hardens after some months' exposure to the air. The soft stones are shaped as wanted, together with thin slabs of coral for the roof, and are then all left to harden. When finished, the entire house, including the roof, is whitewashed, the convenient coral also furnishing the whitening material.
These white roofs give quite an individual character to a Bermudian landscape, their object, of course, being to keep the rain-water supply pure. The men and women who live in these houses are really delightful people, and are all perfectly natural and unaffected. They are all, as one might suppose in so small a place, inter-related. The men seem to have a natural aptitude for cricket, whilst Bermudian girls can all dance, swim, play lawn-tennis, and sail boats to perfection. On my second visit to the islands, I was much struck with one small incident. Two pretty sisters were always the first arrivals at the bi-weekly hotel dances. I found that they lived on the far side of Hamilton Harbour, some six miles by road. As they could not afford ten dollars twice a week for carriage hire, they put on sea-boots and oilskins over their ball-gowns, and then paddled themselves across a mile and a half of rough water, shook out their creases and touched up their hair on arrival, danced all the evening, and then paddled themselves home, whatever the weather. Most Bermudian girls, indeed, seem quite amphibious.
I went out the second time with a great friend of mine, who was anxious to see her son, then quartered in the island. We had attended the Parade Service on Sunday at the Garrison Church, and my friend was resting on the hotel verandah, when she heard two American ladies talking. "My dear," said one of them, "you ought to have come up to that Garrison Church. I tell you, it was a right smart, snappy, dandy little Service, with a Colonel in full uniform reading selections from the Bible from a gilt eagle."
Amongst other interesting people I saw a good deal of at that time in Bermuda was "Mark Twain," who had, however, begun to fail, and that most cultivated and delightful of men, the late William Dean Howells. I twice met at luncheon a gentleman who, I was told, might possibly be adopted as Democratic Candidate for the Presidency of the United States. His name was Dr. Woodrow Wilson.
Many country houses in Bermuda have pieces of old Chippendale and French furniture in them, as well as fine specimens of old French and Spanish silver. I entirely discredit the malicious rumours I have heard about the origin of these treasures. All male Bermudians were seafaring folk in the eighteenth century, and ill-natured people hint that these intrepid mariners, not content with their legitimate trading profits, were occasionally not averse to—a little maritime enterprise. These scandalmongers insinuate that in addition to the British Ensign under which they sailed, another flag of a duskier hue was kept in a convenient locker, and was occasionally hoisted when the owner felt inclined to indulge his tastes as a collector of works of art, or to act as a Marine Agent. I do not believe one word of it, and emphatically decline to associate such kindly people with such dubious proceedings, even if a hundred and fifty years have elapsed since then.
These merchant-traders conducted their affairs on the most patriarchal principles. They built their own schooners of their own cedar-wood, and sailed them themselves with a crew of their own black slaves. The invariable round-voyage was rather a complicated one. The first stage was from Bermuda in ballast to Turks' Island, in the British Caicos group. At Turks' Island for two hundred years salt has been prepared by evaporating sea-water. The Bermudian owner filled up with salt, and sailed for the Banks of Newfoundland, where he disposed of his cargo of salt to the fishermen for curing their cod, and loaded up with salt-fish, with which he sailed to the West Indies. Salt-fish has always been, and still is, the staple article of diet of the West Indian negro; so, his load of salt-fish being advantageously disposed of, he filled up with sugar, coffee, rum, and other tropical produce, and left for New York, where he found a ready sale for his cargo. At New York he loaded up with manufactured goods and "Yankee notions," and returned to Bermuda to dispose of them, thus completing the round trip; but I still refuse to credit the story of other and less legitimate developments of mercantile enterprise. Of course, should Britain be at war with either France or Spain, and should a richly loaded French or Spanish merchantman happen to be overtaken, things might obviously be a little different. The Bermudian owner might then feel it his duty to relieve the vessel of any objects of value to avoid tempting the cupidity of others less scrupulous than himself; but I cannot believe that this was an habitual practice, and should the dusky flag ever have been hoisted, I feel certain that it was only through sheer inadvertence.
I know of one country house in Bermuda where the origin of all the beautiful things it contains is above all suspicion. The house stands on a knoll overlooking the ultramarine waters of Hamilton Harbour, and is surrounded by a dense growth of palms, fiddle trees, and spice trees. The rooms are panelled in carved cedar-wood, and there is charming "grillage" iron-work in the fanlights and outside gates. There is an old circular-walled garden with brick paths, a perfect blaze of colour; and at the back of the house, which is clothed in stephanotis and "Gloire de Dijon" roses, an avenue of flaming scarlet poinsettias leads to the orchard: it is a delightful, restful, old-world place, which, together with its inhabitants, somehow still retains its eighteenth-century atmosphere.
The red and blue birds form one of the attractions of Bermuda. The male red bird, the Cardinal Grosbeak, a remarkably sweet songster, wears an entire suit of vivid carmine, and has a fine tufted crest of the same colour, whilst his wife is dressed more soberly in dull grey bordered with red, just like a Netley nursing sister. The blue birds have dull red breasts like our robins, with turquoise-blue backs and wings, glinting with the same metallic sheen on the blue that the angel-fish display in the water. As with our kingfishers, one has the sense of a brilliant flash of blue light shooting past one. The red and blue birds are very accommodating, for they often sit on the same tree, making startling splashes of colour against the sombre green of the cedars. That the light blue may not have it all its own way, there is the indigo bird as well, serving as a reminder of Oxford and Harrow, and pretty little ground-doves, the smallest of the pigeon family, as well as the "Chick-of-the-Village," a most engaging little creature. Unfortunately some one was injudicious enough to import the English house-sparrow: these detestable little birds, whose instincts are purely mischievous and destructive, like all useless things, have increased at an enormous rate, and are gradually driving the beautiful native birds away. All these birds were wonderfully tame till the hateful sparrows began molesting them. I am glad to say that a fine of 5 pounds is levied on any one killing or capturing a red or blue bird, and I only wish that a reward were given for every sparrow killed. That pleasant writer "Bartimaeus," has in his book Unreality drawn a very sympathetic picture of Bermuda under the transparent alias of "Somer's Island." He, too, has obviously fallen a victim to its charms, and duly comments on the blue birds, which Maeterlinck could find here in any number without a lengthy and painstaking quest.
As a boy, whilst exploring rock-pools at low water on the west coast of Scotland, I used to think longingly of the rock-pools in warm seas, which I pictured to myself as perfect treasure-houses of marine curiosities. They are most disappointing. Neither in Bermuda, nor in the West Indies, nor even on the Cape Peninsula, where the Indian and Atlantic Oceans meet, could I find anything whatever in the rock-pools. To adopt the Sunday School child's word, there seem to be no "tindamies" on the beaches of warm seas. Every one must have heard of the little girl who got her first glimpse of the sea on a Sunday School excursion. The child seemed terribly disappointed at something, and in answer to her teacher's question, said that she liked the sea, "but please where were the 'tindamies?' I was looking forward so to the tindamies!" Pressed for an explanation the little girl repeated from the Fourth Commandment, "In six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea and all the tindamies." Tindamies is quite a convenient word for star-fish, crabs, cuttle-fish and other flotsam and jetsam of the beach.
The Sunday School child's mistake is rather akin to that of the old Sussex shepherd who had never had a day's illness in his life. When at last he did take to his bed, it was quite obvious that he would never leave it again. The vicar of the parish visited him almost daily to read to him. The old man always begged the clergyman to read him the hymn, "The roseate hues of early dawn." At the tenth request for the reading of this hymn the clergyman asked him what it was in the lines that made such an appeal to him. "Ah, sir," answered the old shepherd, "here I lie, and I know full well that I shall never get up again; but when you reads me that beautiful 'ymn, I fancies myself on the downs again at daybreak, and can just see 'Them rows of ewes at early dawn'!"
Had the old shepherd lived in Bermuda instead of in Sussex, that is a sight which he would never have seen, for the local grass, though it appears green enough to the eye, is a coarse growth which crackles under the feet and contains no nutriment whatever as pasture; so all cows have to be fed on imported hay, rendering milk very costly. For the same reason all meat and butter have to be imported, and their price even in pre-war days was sufficiently staggering. The high cost of living and the myriads of mosquitoes are the only draw-backs to life in these Delectable Islands. That no systematic effort to exterminate mosquitoes has ever been made in Bermuda is to me incomprehensible, for these mosquitoes are all of the Stegomyia, or yellow-fever-carrying variety. The Americans have shown, both in the Canal Zone and in Havana, that with sufficient organisation it is quite possible to extirpate these dangerous pests, and the Bermudians could not do better than to follow their example.
Our soldier-gardeners at Government House had their own methods, and were inclined to attach importance to points considered trivial by civilians. The men were laying out a new vegetable garden for the Governor, and I went with the corporal one evening to inspect progress. The corporal, after glancing at the new-planted rows of vegetables, shook his head in deep sadness. "'Arris, 'Arris, I'm surprised at you! Look at the dressing of that there rear rank of lettuces. Up with them all!" and I had to point out that the lettuces would grow quite as well, and prove just as succulent, even should they not happen to be in strict alignment, and that the dressing was only important at a subsequent stage. I laid out a new border to the approach for the Governor, with the help of four soldiers, and it was really rather a successful piece of work. I began with a large group of Kentia and Chamaeropes palms, after which came a patch of bright yellow crotons, giving place to a thicket of a white-foliaged Mexican shrub, followed by a mass of crimson and orange crotons and copper-coloured coleus, which arrangement I repeated. What with scarlet poinsettias, many-hued hibiscus, and the pretty native orange pigeon-berry, I got quite an amount of colour into my border.
Pretty as are the gardens of Government House, they have to yield the palm to those of Admiralty House, which have been carefully tended by generations of admirals. Bartimaeus in Unreality grows quite enthusiastic over these gardens, though he does not mention their three peculiarities. One is a fountain, the only one in the islands. As there is not one drop of fresh water, this fountain has its own catchment area, and its own special rain-water tank. My own idea is that the Admiral reserves its playing for the visits of foreign naval men, to delude them into the idea that Bermuda has an abundant water supply. The second unusual feature is a series of large chambers hewn out of the solid rock, with openings towards the sea. These caves were cut out by convict labour as a refuge from the fierce heat of the summer months. The third is a flat tombstone by the lawn-tennis ground, inscribed "Here lies a British Midshipman 1810," nothing more; no name, no age, no particulars. I have often wondered how that forlorn, nameless, ageless midshipman came to be lying in the Admiral's garden. He was probably drowned and washed ashore without anything to identify him, so they buried him where they found him.
The particular white battalion quartered in Bermuda during my first visit there was very fortunate in its ladies, for it had an unusual proportion of married officers. I have the greatest admiration for these plucky little women who accompany their husbands all over the globe, and who always seem to manage, however narrow their means, to create a cheerful and attractive little home for their menkind. They all appeared able to dress themselves well, though, if the truth were known, they were probably mostly their own dressmakers, and, owing to the servant difficulty in Bermuda, their own cooks as well; they had transformed their little white-washed houses into the most inviting little dwellings, and in spite of having to do a great part of their own housework, they always managed to look pretty and charming. The average wife of the average officer of a Line regiment is a wonderful little woman.
The supper-parties in the married officers' quarters at Prospect Camp were the cheeriest entertainments I have ever been at. Every one had to contribute something. My own culinary attainments being confined to the preparation of three dishes, I was compelled to repeat them monotonously. The subalterns were made to carry the dishes from the kitchen, and to "wash-up" afterwards, yet I am sure that the average London hostess would have envied the jollity, the fun and high spirits that made those informal supper-parties so delightful, and would have given anything to introduce some of this cheery atmosphere into her own decorous and extremely dull entertainments, where the guests did not have to cook their own dinners.
I gave a dinner-party at an hotel to eleven people, all officers or officers' wives. The conversation turned on birthplaces, and the answers given were so curious, that I wrote them all down. Not only were all my guests soldiers and soldiers' wives, but they were nearly all the sons and daughters of soldiers as well. One major had been born at Cape Town; his very comely wife in Barbados. The other major had been born at Meerut in India, his wife at Quebec, and her unmarried sister in Mauritius; and so it was with all of them. Of those twelve people of pure British blood, I was the only one who had been born in England or in Europe; even the subaltern had been born in Hong-Kong. I do not thing that stay-at-homes quite realise the existence of this little world of people journeying from end to end of the earth in the course of their duty, and taking it all as a matter of course.
I regret that the Imperial West India Direct Line should now be defunct, for this gave a monthly direct service between Bristol and Bermuda, and I can conceive of no pleasanter winter quarters for those desirous of escaping the rigours of an English January and February. Ten days after leaving Bristol, ten days it must be confessed of extremely angry seas, the ship dropped her anchor in Grassy Bay, and the astonished arrival from England found ripe strawberries, new peas, and new potatoes awaiting his good pleasure. No visitor could fail to be delighted with the pretty, prosperous little island, and with its genial and hospitable inhabitants. For Americans, too, the place was a godsend, for in forty-eight hours they could escape from the extreme and fickle climate of New York, and find themselves in warm sunshine, tempered, it is true, by occasional downpours, for Nature, realising that the inhabitants were dependent on the rainfall for their water supply, did her best to avoid any shortage of this necessity of life. Canadians had also a great liking for the islands, for not only were they on their own soil there, but in sixty hours they could transport themselves from the ice and snow of Montreal and Toronto to a climate where roses and geraniums bloomed at Christmas, and where orange and lemon trees and great wine-coloured drifts of Bougainvillaa mocked at the futile efforts of winter to touch them. The Bishop of Bermuda, who also included Newfoundland in his See, declared that climatically his diocese was absolutely ideal, for he passed the six winter months in Bermuda and the remainder of the year in Newfoundland, thus escaping alike the rigorous winters of the northern island and the fierce summer heat of the southern one. The Bishop himself was a Newfoundlander, as were many of the Church of England clergy in Bermuda. A humorous friend of mine, a sapper in charge of the "wireless," shared to the full my liking for the islands and their pleasant inhabitants, but positively detested Prospect Camp where he was stationed. Prospect, though healthy enough, is wind-swept, very dusty, and quite devoid of shade. He declared that the well-known hymn should be altered, and ought to run:
"What though the Ocean breezes Blow o'er Bermuda's isle; Where every man is pleasing And only Prospect vile."
Few people seem to realise that Bermuda is a first-class fortress, a dockyard, and an important naval coaling-station. A glance at the map will show its strategic importance. Nature has made it almost inaccessible with barrier-reefs, and there is but one narrow and difficult entrance off St. George's. This entrance is jealously guarded by a heavy battery of 12 in. and 6 in. guns, and the ten-mile long ship-channel inside the reefs from St. George's to the Dockyard is very difficult and complicated, though I imagine that, with modern guns, a ship could lie outside the reefs and shell the islands to pieces.
The first time that I was in Bermuda, a German Training Squadron arrived, with a number of naval cadets on board, and announced their intention of remaining ten days. The German officers at once exhibited a most un-Teutonic keenness about sea-fishing. The Governor, fully alive to the advantage a possibly hostile power might reap from an independent survey and charting of the tortuous and difficult ship-channel between St. George's and the Dockyard, at once held a consultation with the Senior Naval Officer, in the Admiral's absence, and, as a result of this consultation, three naval petty officers were detailed to show the Germans the best fishing-grounds. At the same time naval patrol boats displayed a quite unusual activity inside the reefs. Both patrol boats and petty officers had their private orders, and I fancy that these steps resulted in very few soundings being taken, and in the ship-channel remaining uncharted by our German visitors. I was returning myself, after dark, in the ferry-boat plying between the Dockyard and Hamilton, when there were four German officers on the bridge. Imagining themselves secure in the general ignorance of their language, they were openly noting the position of the leading lights, as the little steamer threaded her way through the smaller islands and "One rock" and "Two rock passage," and all these observations were, I imagine, duly entered in their pocket-books after landing. In conversation with the German officers I was much struck with the essentially false ideas that they had with regard to the position of the motherland and her dependencies. They seemed convinced that every Dominion and dependency was merely waiting for the first favourable opportunity to declare its complete independence, and they hardly troubled to conceal their opinion that Britain was hopelessly decadent, and would never be able to wage a campaign again. Bermuda, in view of its wonderful strategic position, had, I am convinced, been marked down as a future German possession, when they would have endeavoured to make a second Heligoland of it.
Nowhere could a little population be found more loyal to the motherland than in Bermuda, or prouder of its common heritage.
A friend of mine, a lady who had never left the islands, wrote some lines which I thought so fine that I set them to music. Her words, though, are so much better than my setting, that I will quote them in full.
THE SONG OF THE BERMUDIANS THE KEEPERS OF THE WESTERN GATE
Queen of the Seas! Thou hast given us the Keys, Proudly do we hold them, we thy Children and akin, Though we be nor rich nor great, We will guard the Western Gate, And our lives shall pay the forfeit ere we let the foeman in.
Empty are our hands, for we have nor wealth nor lands, No grain or gold to give thee, and so few a folk are we; Yet in very will and deed, We will serve thee at thy need, And keep thine ancient fortalice beyond the Western Sea.
The sea is at our doors, and we front its fretted floors, Swept by every wind that listeth, ringed with reefs from rim to rim, Though we may not break its bars, Yet by light of sun or stars Our hearts are fain for England, and for her our eyes are dim.
Sweet Mother, ponder this, lest thy favour we should miss; We, the loneliest and least of all thy peoples of the sea. With bared heads and proud We bless thy name aloud, For gift of lowly service, as we guard the gate for thee.
Those lines, to me, have a fine ring about them. The words, "In very will and deed, We will serve thee at thy need," were not a mere empty boast, as the splendid record of little Bermuda in the years of trouble from 1914 to 1918 shows, when almost every man of military age, whether white or coloured, voluntarily crossed the Atlantic to help the motherland in her need; so let us wish all success to the sun-kissed, cedar-clad little islands, and to their genial inhabitants.
The demerits of the West Indies classified—The utter ruin of St. Pierre—The Empress Josephine—A transplanted brogue—Vampires—Lost in a virgin forest—Dictator-Presidents —Castro and Rosas—The mentality of a South American—"The Liberator"—The Basques and their national game—Love of English people for foreign words—Yellow fever—Life on an Argentine estancia—How cattle are worked—The lasso and the "bolas"—Ostriches—Venomous toads—The youthful rough-rider—His methods—Fuel difficulties—The vast plains—The wonderful bird-life.
Any one desirous of seeing an exceedingly beautiful, and comparatively unknown, corner of the world, should take the fortnightly Inter-colonial steamer from Trinidad, and make the voyage "up the islands." The Lesser Antilles are very lovely, but there is something rather melancholy about them, for they are obviously decaying in prosperity; the white planters are abandoning them, and as the coloured people take their place, externals all begin to assume a shabby, unkempt appearance. I am speaking of the conditions anterior to 1914; the great rise in the price of sugar since then may have resulted in a back-wash of prosperity affecting both the Windward and the Leeward Islands.
I should always myself classify the West India islands according to their liability to, or immunity from, the various local drawbacks. Thus Barbados, though within the hurricane zone, is outside the earthquake zone, and is free from poisonous snakes. Trinidad, only 200 miles away, is outside the hurricane area, but is most distinctly inside the earthquake zone, is prolific in venomous snakes and enjoys the further advantage of being the home of the blood-sucking vampire bat. Jamaica is liable to both hurricanes and earthquakes, but has no poisonous snakes. St. Vincent, St. Lucia and Martinique are really over-full of possibilities, for, in addition to a liability to earthquakes and hurricanes, they each possess an active volcano, and Martinique and St. Lucia are the habitat of the dreaded and deadly Fer-de-Lance snake.
The Administrator of St. Vincent had been good enough to ask me to dinner by telegram. The steamer reached St. Vincent after dark, and it was a curious experience landing on an unknown island in a tailcoat and white tie, driving for two miles, and then tumbling into a dinner-party of sixteen white people, not one of whom one had ever seen before, or was ever likely to meet again. It was as though one had been dropped by an aeroplane into an unknown land, and when the steamer sailed again before midnight, it was all as though it had never been. The orchids on that dinner-table were very remarkable, for orchid-growing was the Administrator's hobby. He grafted his orchids on to orange trees, and so obtained enormous growths. We measured some of the flower-sprays, the biggest being nine feet long. As they were brown and yellow Oncidiums, they were more curious than beautiful.
The appalling desolation of St. Pierre, in the French island of Martinique, cannot be imagined without having been seen. Of a very handsome city of 40,000 inhabitants there is absolutely nothing left except one gable of the cathedral. There is no trace of a town having ever existed here, for the poisonous manchineel tree has spread itself over the ruins, and it is difficult to realise that twenty years ago the pride of the French West Indies stood here. The rich merchants and planters of St. Pierre had all made their homes in the valley of the little river Roxelana. After the sides of Mont Pele had gaped apart and hurled their white-hot whirlwind of fire over the doomed town on that fatal May 8, 1902—a fiery whirlwind which calcined every human being and every building in the town in less than one minute—molten lava poured into the valley of the Roxelana until it filled it up entirely, burying houses, gardens and plantations alike. There is no trace even of a valley now, and the stream makes its way underground to the sea. Napoleon the Great's first wife, Josephine de la Pagerie, was a native of Martinique and retained all her life the curious indolence of the Creole. Her gross extravagance and her love of luxury may also have been due to her Creole blood. Her first husband, of course, had been the Vicomte de Beauharnais, and her daughter, Hortense de Beauharnais, married Napoleon's brother, Louis, King of Holland. This complicated relationships, for Queen Hortense's son, Louis Napoleon, afterwards Napoleon III., was thus at the same time nephew and step-grandson of Napoleon I. M. Filon, in his most interesting study of the Empress Eugenie, points out that Napoleon III. showed his Creole blood in his constant chilliness. He chose as his private apartments at the Tuileries a set of small rooms on the ground floor, as these could be more easily heated up to the temperature he liked. According to M. Filon, Napoleon III. shortened his life by persisting in remaining so much in what he describes as "those over-gilt, over-heated, air-tight little boxes."
The well-known greenhouse climbing plant lapageria, with its waxy white or crimson trumpets of flowers, owes its name to Josephine de la Pagerie, for on its first introduction into France it was called La Pageria in her honour, though with the English pronunciation of the name the connection is not at first obvious.
It is not so generally known that Madame de Maintenon, as Francoise d'Aubigne, spent all her girlhood in Martinique.
The coloured women of Martinique have apparently absorbed, thanks to their two hundred years' association with the French, something of that innate good taste which seems the birthright of most French people, and they show this in their very individual and becoming costumes. The Martinique negress is, as a rule, a handsome bronze-coloured creature, and she wears a full-skirted, flowing dress of flowered chintz or cretonne, with a fichu of some contrasting colour over her breast. She hides her woolly locks under an ample turban of two shades, one of which will exactly match her fichu, whilst the other will either correspond to or contrast with the colour of her chintz dress, thus producing what the French term "une gamme de couleur," most pleasing to the eye, and with never a false note in it. Beside these comely, amply breasted bronze statues, the British West Indian negress, with her absurd travesty of European fashions, and her grotesque hats, cuts, I am bound to say, a very poor figure indeed.
The flourishing little island of Montserrat has one peculiarity. The negroes all speak with the strongest of Irish brogues. Cromwell deported to Montserrat many of the "Malignants" from the West of Ireland, who acquired negro slaves to cultivate their sugar and cotton. These negroes naturally learnt English in the fashion in which their masters spoke it. The white men have gone; the brogue remains. I was much amused on going ashore in the Administrator's whaleboat, he being an old acquaintance from the Co. Tyrone, to hear his jet-black coxswain remark, "'Tis the lee side I will be going, sorr, the way your Honour will not be getting wet, for them back-seas are mighty throublesome." This in Montserrat was unexpected.
There is a curious uninhabited rock lying amongst the Virgin Islands. It is quite square and box-like in shape, and is known as "The Dead Man's Chest." Before seeing it I had always thought that the eternal chant of the old pirate at the "Admiral Benbow," in Treasure Island:
"Fifteen men on the Dead Man's Chest, Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!"
referred literally to a seaman's chest, though reflection might have shown that one chest would afford rather scanty seating-ground for fifteen men.
At Nevis, the curious can see in Fig Tree Church the register attesting the marriage of "Horatio Nelson, Captain of H.M.S. Boreas, to Frances Nisbet, widow," on March 11, 1789. William IV., at that time Duke of Clarence, was Nelson's best man on that occasion.
Nevis possesses powerful hot mineral springs, and a hundred years ago and more was the great health resort of white people in the West Indies. Here the planters endeavoured to get their torpid livers into working order again, and the local boast was that for every pearl necklace and pair of diamond shoe-buckles to be seen at the English Bath, there were three to be seen in Nevis. To add to its attractions it was asserted that the drinking, gambling, and duelling in Nevis left Bath completely in the shade.
Though one was constantly hearing of diminishing trade in the Lesser Antilles, certain questions kept suggesting themselves to me. For instance, in islands abounding in water power, why ship copra in bulk to England or the United States, instead of crushing it locally and exporting the oil, which would occupy one-tenth of the cargo-space? Why, in an island producing both oranges and sugar, ship them separately to Europe to be made into marmalade, instead of manufacturing it on the spot? The invariable answer to these queries was "lack of capital"; no one seemed to guess that lack of enterprise might be a contributory cause as well.
I have alluded to the vampire bat of Trinidad. Six weeks before my arrival there, the Governor's aide-de-camp had most imprudently slept without lowering his mosquito curtains. He awoke to find himself drenched in blood, for a vampire bat had opened a vein, drunk his fill, and then flown off leaving the wound open. The doctor had to apply the actual cautery to stop the bleeding, and six weeks afterwards the unfortunate aide-de-camp was still as white as a sheet of paper from loss of blood. At Government House, Port-of-Spain, there is a very lofty entrance-hall, bright with electric light. The vampires constantly flew in here, to become helpless at once in the glare of light, when they could be easily killed with a stick. The vampire is a small, sooty-black bat with a perfectly diabolical little face. An ordinary mosquito net is quite sufficient protection against them, or, to persons who do not mind a light in their room, a lamp burning all night is an absolute safeguard against their attacks. Every stable in Trinidad has a lighted lamp burning all night in it, and those who can afford them, drop wire-gauze curtains over their horses' stalls as a protection against vampires.
The Trinidad negro being naturally an indolent creature, all the boatmen and cab-drivers in Port-of-Spain are Barbadians. As we know, the Badians have an inordinate opinion of themselves and of their island. Whilst I was in Trinidad, General Baden-Powell came there in the course of his world-tour inspection of Boy Scouts. On the day of General Baden-Powell's arrival, all the Badian boatmen and cab-drivers struck work, and the vampire-bitten aide-de-camp, who was in the town, met serried phalanxes of dark faces hurrying to the landing-stage. On asking a Badian what the excitement was about, the negro answered with infinite hauteur.
"You ask me dat, sir? You not know dat our great countryman General Badian-Powell arrive to-day, so we all go welcome him."
Charles Kingsley in At Last goes into rhapsodies over the "High Woods" of Trinidad. I confess that I was terribly disappointed in them. They are too trim and well-kept; the Forestry department has done its work too well. There are broad green rides cut through them, reminiscent of covers in an English park, but certainly not suggestive of a virgin forest. One almost expects to hear the beaters' sticks rattling in them, and I did not think that they could compare with the splendid virgin forests of Brazil.
I was in Brazil just thirty years ago with Patrick Lyon, brother of the present Lord Strathmore. We were staying at Petropolis, and Lyon, fired by my accounts of these virgin forests, declared that he must see one for himself. He had heard that the forests extended to within three miles of Petropolis, and at once went to hire two horses for us to ride out there. There were no horses to be had in the place, but so determined was Lyon to see these untrodden wilds, that he insisted on our doing the three miles on foot, then and there. It was the height of the Brazilian summer, and the heat was something appalling. We struggled over three miles of a glaring white shadeless road, grilled alive by the sun, but always comforting ourselves by dwelling on the cool shades awaiting us at the end of our journey. At length we reached the forest, and wandered into a green twilight under the dense canopy of leaves, which formed an unbroken roof a hundred feet over our heads. With "green twilight" the obvious epithet should be "cool"; that is exactly what it was not, for if the green canopy shut out the sun, it also shut out the air, and the heat in that natural leafy cathedral was absolutely overpowering. We wandered on and on, till I began to grow giddy and faint with the heat. I asked Lyon how he was feeling, and he owned that the heat had affected him too, so we sat down on a rock to recuperate.
"It is a solemn thought," observed Lyon, after a long silence, "that we are perhaps the first human beings to have set foot in this forest. We simply must pull ourselves together, for it might be months before any one passed here, and you know what that means." I assented gloomily, as I formed melancholy mental pictures of ourselves as two mature Babes-in-the-Wood, speculating whether, in the event of our demise in these untrodden wilds, any Brazilian birds, brilliant of plumage but kindly of heart, would cover us up with leaves. These great forest tracts were producing an awe-inspiring effect on us as we realised our precarious position, when we suddenly heard Toot! toot! toot! and to our inexpressible amazement we saw a tramcar approaching us through the trees. The car came within twenty feet of us, for the track had been quite hidden by some rising ground; we hailed it, and returned to Petropolis prosaically seated on the front bench of a tramcar. We afterwards found that the untrodden wilds of our virgin forest were traversed by a regular hourly service of tramcars; alas for vanished illusions!
There is a street in Port-of-Spain which used to be known as the "Calle de los Presidentes," or Presidents' Street, for it was here that fugitive Presidents of Venezuela were wont to take refuge when the political atmosphere of that republic grew uncomfortable for them. Most of these gentlemen thoughtfully brought with them as much of the national till as they were able to lay their hands on, to comfort them in their exile. Spanish-American republics seem to produce Dictator-Presidents very freely. When I was in Venezuela in 1907 Cipriano Castro had grasped supreme power, and governed the country as an autocrat. Castro, who was an uneducated half-caste, ruled by corruption and terror; he repudiated all the national obligations, quarrelled with the United States and with every European Power, and disposed of his political opponents by the simple expedient of placing them against a wall with a file of soldiers with loaded rifles in front of them. For eight years this ignorant, bloodthirsty savage enjoyed absolute power, until he was forced in 1908 to flee to Europe. I do not know whether he followed the national custom by taking most of the exchequer with him. A typical sample of Castro's administrative powers was to be seen at La Guayra, the wretched, poverty-stricken seaport of Caracas. Dominating the squalid little place was a huge and imposing fort with heavy guns, over which the gaudy Venezuelan tricolour of yellow, blue, and red fluttered bravely. This fort was an elaborate sham, built of coloured plaster, and the guns were of painted wood only; but Castro thought that it was calculated to frighten the foreigner, and it possibly flattered the national vanity as well.
A most remarkable example of a Dictator-Tyrant was Juan Rosas, who, for seventeen years, from 1835 to 1852, ruled the Argentine Republic as an unchallenged despot. Rosas was born in 1793, and began life as a gaucho. He seized supreme power in 1835, and is credited with having put twenty-five thousand people to death. The "Nero of South America" was ably backed-up by his seconds-in-command, Oribe and Urquiza, two most consummate scoundrels. Whether Rosas "saw red," as others since his day have done, or whether it was the play on his own name which pleased him, I cannot say, but he had a perfect mania for the colour red. He dressed all his troops in scarlet ponchos, and ordered every male inhabitant of Buenos Ayres who wore a coat at all, to wear a scarlet waistcoat, whilst all ladies were bidden to wear a knot of scarlet ribbon and to carry a red fan. In the Dictator's own house at Palermo all the carpets and stuffs were scarlet. An elderly lady in Buenos Ayres, who remembered Rosas' dictatorship perfectly, showed me some of the scarlet fans, specially made in Spain for the Argentine market after Rosas had promulgated his edict. My friend described to me how Rosas placed several of his rough police at the doors of every church, and any lady who did not exhibit the obligatory red bow on her black dress (in Spanish-speaking countries the women always go to Mass in black), received a dab of pitch on her cheek, on to which the policeman clapped a rosette of red paper. She told it all so graphically that I could almost see the stream of frightened, black-clad women issuing from the church, whilst their husbands and lovers stood expectantly below (South American men rarely enter a church), every man-jack of them with a scarlet waistcoat, like a flock of swarthy robin redbreasts. I have seen some of these waistcoats; the young bloods wore scarlet silk, the older men red cloth. Rosas, like a mediaeval monarch, had his court fool or jester, a dwarf known as Don Eusebio. Rosas dressed him in scarlet and gave him the rank of a general, with a scarlet-clad bodyguard, and woe betide any one who treated the Dictator's fool with scant respect. Rosas was undoubtedly as mad as Bedlam, but he was an abominably bloodthirsty madman who successfully exterminated all his opponents. The Dictator was accessible to every one at his house at Palermo, and the marvel is that he managed to escape assassination. His enormities became so intolerable that in 1852 the Brazilians and Uruguayans invaded the Argentine, and at the critical moment General Urquiza, Rosas' trusted second-in-command, betrayed him and went over to the enemy, so the Dictator's power was broken.
Rosas took refuge in the British Legation, and for some reason which I have never fathomed, he was shipped to England on H.M.S. Locust. He settled down at Swaythling near Southampton, where he died in 1877 after twenty-five years peaceful residence. He was a peculiarly bloodthirsty scoundrel.
Some of these Spanish-American dictators have been beneficent despots, such as Jose Francia, who, upon Paraguay proclaiming her independence in 1811, got elected President, and soon afterwards managed to secure his nomination as Dictator for life. He ruled Paraguay autocratically but well until his death in 1840, and the country prospered under him. Under the iron rule of Porfirio Diaz, from 1877 to 1911, Mexico enjoyed the only period of comparative calm that turbulent country has known in recent years, and made continued economic progress.
I think that a Latin-American's only abstract idea of government is a despotic one. They do not trouble much about the substance as long as they have the shadow, and provided that the national arms display prominently a "Cap of Liberty," and mottoes of "Libertad y Progreso" are sufficiently flaunted about, he does not bother much about the absence of such trifles as trial by jury, or worry his head over the venality and tyranny of officials, the "faking" of elections, or the disregard of the President of the day for the constitutional limitations imposed upon his office. Do not the national arms and motto proclaim that his country stands in the van of Liberty and Progress, and what more could any one want? Some of the coats-of-arms of Spanish-American republics and states would give an official of the College of Arms an apoplectic fit, for "colour" is unblushingly displayed on "colour" and "metal" upon "metal" in defiance of every recognised rule of heraldry.
The first time that I was in Buenos Ayres a very pleasant young English civil engineer begged me to visit the family with whom he was boarding, assuring me that I should find the most amusing nest of cranks there. These people had come originally from the Pacific Coast, I cannot recall whether from Bolivia or Ecuador. As their revolutionary tendencies and their constant efforts to overthrow the Government had rendered their native country too hot to hold them, they had drifted through Peru to Chili, and had wandered across the continent to Buenos Ayres, where the details connected with the running of a boarding-house had left them with but little time for putting their subversive tendencies into practice. Amongst their paying guests was an elderly man from the country of their origin, who twenty-five years earlier had so disapproved of the particular President elected to rule his native land, that he had shown his resentment by attempting to assassinate him. Being, however, but an indifferent shot with a revolver, he had merely wounded the President in the arm. He had somehow managed to escape from Bolivia, or Ecuador, and ultimately made his way to Buenos Ayres, where he was warmly welcomed in revolutionary circles; and his defective marksmanship being overlooked, the will was taken for the deed, and he was always alluded to as "El Libertador," or "The Liberator." I accompanied the young engineer to his boarding-house one evening, where I met the most extraordinary collection of people. Every one was talking at once, and all of them at the very top of their voices, so it was impossible to follow what was being said, but I have no doubt that their opinions were all sufficiently "enlightened" and "advanced." "The Liberator" sat apart in an arm-chair, his patriarchal white beard streaming over his chest, and was treated with immense deference by every one present. At intervals during the evening glasses of Guinness' bottled stout were offered to the Liberator (and to no one else), this being a beverage of which most South Americans are inordinately fond. I was duly introduced to the Liberator, who received my advances with affability tempered with haughtiness. I flattered myself that I had made a very favourable impression on him, but I learnt afterwards that the old gentleman was deeply offended with me, for, on being introduced to him, I had assured him that it was a pleasure to meet "so distinguished a man" (un hombre tan distinguido), whereas I should have said "so distinguished a gentleman" (un caballero tan distinguido), a curious point for so ardent a democrat to boggle over.
No stranger in Buenos Ayres should omit a visit to the Plaza Euskara on a Sunday.
The Plaza Euskara is the great court where the Basques play their national game of "pelota." Euskara is the term used by the Basques themselves for their mysterious language, a language with no affinity to any European tongue, and so difficult that it is popularly supposed that the Devil, after spending seven fruitless years in endeavouring to master it, gave up the attempt in despair. "Pelota" is the father of racquets and fives, and is an immemorially old game, going back, it is said, to the times of the Romans. Instead of using a racquet, it is played with a curved wicker basket strapped on to the right wrist. This basket is not unlike in shape to those wicker-work covers which in pre-taxi days were placed by London hotel porters over the wheels of hansom-cabs to protect ladies' dresses in getting in or out of them. When a back-handed stroke is necessary, the player grasps his right wrist with his left hand, using his wicker-encased right hand as a racquet. The court is nearly three times the length of a racquet-court, and is always open to the air. There is a back wall and a wall on the left-hand side; the other two sides are open and filled with spectators. The players are marvellously adroit, and get up balls which seem quite impossible to return; they are all professionals, for the game is so difficult that it must be learnt in early boyhood. It is scored like racquets up to fifteen points, one side invariably wearing blue "berets" and sashes, the other red. Large red and blue dials mark the points on the end wall as they are scored.
On Sundays and holidays the Plaza Euskara is a wonderful sight, with its thousands of spectators, all worked up to a pitch of intense excitement. The betting is tremendous, and fat wads of dollar bills are produced from the shabbiest of coats, whose owners one would hardly associate with such an amount of portable wealth. The three umpires sit together on a sort of rostrum, each one crowned with the national Basque "beret." Points are being continually referred to their decision, amidst the shouts and yells of the excited partisans. Every time the three umpires stand up, remove their berets, and make low bows to each other; they then confer in whispers, and having reached a decision, they again stand up bareheaded, repeat their bows, and then announce their verdict to the public. Pelota is certainly a most interesting game to watch, owing to the uncanny skill of the players. Invariably in the course of the afternoon there is one match in which the little apprentices take part, either with their masters as partners, or entirely amongst themselves.
I have used the Spanish word "pelota," but it merely means "ball," just as the Russian word "soviet" means nothing in the world but "council." English people who refuse to take the trouble to learn any foreign language, seem to love using these words; they have all the glamour of the unfamiliar and unknown about them. Personally, it always seemed to me very foolish using the term "Kaiser" to describe the ex-Emperor William. Certainly any dictionary will tell one that Kaiser is the German equivalent for Emperor, but as we happen to speak English I fail to see why we should use the German term. Equally, Konig is the German for King, and yet I never recollect any one alluding to the Konig of Saxony. Some people seem to imagine that the title "Kaiser" was a personal attribute of William of Hohenzollern; it was nothing of the sort. Should any one have been entitled to the term, it would have been the Hapsburg Emperor, the lineal descendant of the "Heiliger Romischer Kaiser," and yet one used to read such ridiculous headings as "Kaiser meets Austrian Emperor." What did the writers of this imagine that Franz-Josef was called by his subjects? The meaningless practice only originated in England with William II.'s accession; it was unheard of before. If English people had any idea that "Rey" was the Spanish for King, I am sure that on King Alfonso's next visit to England we should see flaring headlines announcing the "Arrival of the Rey in London," and in the extraordinarily unlikely event of the Queen of Sweden ever wishing to pay a visit to this country, any one with a Swedish dictionary could really compose a brilliant headline, "The Drottning drives despondently down Downing Street," and I confess that neither of them seem one whit more foolish than for English-speaking people to use the term Kaiser. The label may be a convenient one, but it is inaccurate, for there was not one Kaiser but two.
The familiar, when wrapped in all the majesty of a foreign tongue, can be very imposing. Some little time back a brother of mine laid out a new rock-garden at his house in the country. The next year a neighbour wrote saying that he would be very grateful should my brother be able to supply him with any of his superfluous rock-plants. My brother answered, regretting his inability to accede to this request, as, owing to the dry spring, his rock-garden had failed absolutely, in fact the only growth visible in it consisted of several hundred specimens of the showy yellow blooms of the "Leo Elegans." Much impressed with this sonorous appellation, his correspondent begged for a few roots of "Leo Elegans." My brother, in his reply, pointed out that the common dandelion was hardly a sufficient rarity to warrant its being transplanted.
I went out a second time to the Argentine Republic with Patrick Lyon, to whom I have already alluded, in order to place a young relative of his as premium-pupil on an English-owned ranche, or estancia, as it is locally called. We had an extremely unpleasant voyage out, for at Rio Janeiro we were unfortunate enough to get yellow fever into the ship, and we had five deaths on board. I myself was attacked by the fever, but in its very mildest form, and I was the only one to recover; all the other victims of the yellow scourge died, and I attribute my own escape to the heroic remedy administered to me with my own consent by the ship's doctor. Although Buenos Ayres is quite out of the yellow-fever zone, the disease has occasionally been brought there from Brazil, and to Argentines the words "yellow fever" are words of terror, for in the early "seventies" the population of Buenos Ayres was more than decimated by a fearful epidemic of the scourge. Our ship was at once ordered back to Brazil, and was not allowed to discharge one single ounce of her cargo, which must have entailed a very heavy financial loss on the R.M.S.P. Company. We unfortunate passengers had to undergo twenty-one days rigorous quarantine, during which we were allowed no communication whatever with the outside world, and were in addition mulcted of the exorbitant sum of 3 pounds a day for very indifferent board and accommodation.
Having reached the estancia and placed our pupil on it, we liked the place so well that we made arrangements to stay there for six weeks at least, thus getting a very good idea of its daily life. The province of Buenos Ayres is one great featureless, treeless, dead-flat plain, and being all an alluvial deposit, it contains neither a pebble in the soil nor a single spring of water. Water is found everywhere at a depth of six or seven feet, and this great level extends for a thousand miles. Where its undoubted fascination comes in is hard to say, yet I defy any one not to respond to it. It is probably due to the sense of limitless space, and to a feeling of immense freedom, the latter being physical and not political. The only indigenous tree is the ombu, and the ombu makes itself conspicuous by its rarity. Nature must have fashioned this tree with her tongue in cheek, for the wood is a mere pith, and a walking-stick can be driven right into the tree. Not only is the wood useless as timber, but it is equally valueless as fuel, for the pith rots before it can be dried. The leaves are poisonous, and in spite of its being mere pith, it is one of the slowest-growing trees known, so that, take it all round, the solitary indigenous tree of Buenos Ayres is about the most useless arboreal product that could be imagined. The ombu is a handsome tree to the eye, not unlike an English walnut in its habit of growth, and it has the one merit of being a splendid shade-tree. During the last forty years, poplars, willows and eucalyptus have been lavishly planted round the estancia houses, so any green or dusky patch of trees breaking the bare expanse of dun-coloured plain is an unfailing sign of human habitation.
The manager and the premium-pupils on our estancia all breakfasted before six, and then went out to the horse-corral to catch their horses for the day's work. They were obliging enough to catch horses, too, for myself and Lyon, which we duly found tied up to a tree when we made our later appearance. Let us suppose an order for fifty bullocks to have come from Buenos Ayres. The manager with the three pupils and some ten mounted gauchos would ride off to the selected enclosure, and run his eye over the "mob" of cattle. Having selected six beasts, he would point them out to the gauchos, and then pick out two for himself and his younger brother. Shaking his reins, and calling out "Ico! Ico!" to his horse, he would ride up to the doomed beast, and endeavour to cut him out from the herd. The horse, who understood and enjoyed the game as well as the man on his back, once he had distinguished the bullock they were riding down, needed no stimulant of whip, but would follow him of his own accord, twisting and doubling like a retriever after a wounded hare, or a terrier after a rat. Once the animal was cut out of the herd, the manager would uncoil his lasso, one end of which was made fast to the cinch-ring of his girths, and out flew the looped coil of rope with unerring straightness, catching the bullock round the horns. The intelligent horse, having played the game many times before, steadied himself for the shock which experience had taught him to expect when he would feel the whole weight of the galloping bullock suddenly arrested in his rush for freedom tugging at his cinch-ring. The gauchos had also secured their beasts in the same way, and the process was continued until the fifty bullocks had been securely corralled, blissfully unconscious that this was the first stage of their ultimate transformation into roast beef, or filets de boeuf a la Bordelaise.
Though Lyon and I never attempted to use the lasso, we often joined in riding a beast down, and the horses, after they had once identified the particular beast they were to follow, turned and twisted with such unexpected suddenness that they nearly shot us both out of the saddle a dozen times. None of the pupils were yet able to use the lasso with certainty, though they spent hours in practising at a row of bullocks' skulls in the corral. In time a foreigner can learn to throw the lasso with all the skill of a born Argentine, but the use of the "bolas" is an art that must be acquired in childhood. I used to see some of the gauchos' children, little fellows of five or six, practising on the fowls with miniature toy bolas made of string, and they usually hit their mark. The bolas consist of pieces of raw hide shaped like the letter Y; at the extremities are two heavy lead balls, whilst at the base of the Y is a wooden ball which is held in the hand. The operator whirls the bolas round his head, and sends them flying at the objective with unfailing certainty, and the animal "emboladoed" drops as though shot through the head. I have seen these used on "outside camps," but on a well-managed estancia, such as Espartillar, the use of the bolas is strictly prohibited, since it tends to break the animal's leg. The only time I ever saw them employed there, was against a peculiarly aggressive male ostrich, who attacked all intruders into his particular domain with the utmost ferocity. The bird fell like a dead thing, and he assumed a very chastened demeanour after this lesson. The South American ostrich, the Rhea, though smaller and less dangerous than his big African cousin, can be most pugnacious when he is rearing a family of young chicks. I advisedly say "he," for the hen ostrich, once she has hatched her eggs, considers all her domestic obligations fulfilled, and disappears to have a good gossip with her lady friends, leaving to her husband the task of attending to the young brood. The male bird is really dangerous at this time, for his forward kick is terrifically powerful. The ostrich can run faster than any horse, but it is quite easy to circumvent any charging bird. All that is necessary is to turn one's horse quickly at right angles; the ostrich has such way on him that he is unable to pull up, and goes tearing on a hundred yards beyond his objective before he can change his direction. This manoeuvre repeated two or three times leaves the bird discomfited; as they would say in Ireland, "You have him beat." I confess that I have never seen an ostrich bury his head in the sand to blind himself to any impending danger, as he is traditionally supposed to do; I fancy that this is a libel on a fairly sagacious bird, and that in reality the practice is entirely confined to politicians.
The Argentine Republic is peculiar in possessing a venomous toad, equipped like a snake with regular poison-glands and fangs. He is known in the vernacular as escuerzo, and is rather a handsome creature, wearing a green black-striped coat. I am told by learned people that he is not a true toad, that his proper name is Ceratophrys ornata, and that he is a cannibal, feeding on harmless frogs and toads which he kills with his poison-fangs. There was a plentiful supply of these creatures at Espartillar, and the pupils, when they found an escuerzo, loved to tease him with a stick. He is probably the worse-tempered and most irritable batrachian known, and when prodded with a stick would puff himself out, and work himself into a hideous passion. Every one went about high-booted, and possibly his fangs were not powerful enough to penetrate a boot, but, anyhow, he never made the attempt; he tried to snap at the hands instead, and as he could only jump up a foot or so, he continued making a series of abortive little leaps, each futile attempt at reaching his aggressor's hands adding to the creature's insane rage. When the escuerzo was beside himself with fury, the pupil would dip his stick into the oily residue of his pipe, and hold it out to the toad, who would fasten on to it like a mad creature, only to die in a few seconds of the nicotine.
The only other venomous reptile was the Vibora de la Cruz, the "Viper with the Cross," much dreaded by the gauchos.
It is an interesting sight seeing wild young horses being broken-in, and receiving their first instruction in the service of man. The rough-rider at Espartillar was a younger brother of the manager's, a short, sturdy, round-faced, grinning Cornish lad of eighteen, a youth of large appetite, but of few words, universally known as "The Joven," which merely means "the lad." "Joven," by the way, is pronounced "Hoven," with a slight guttural sound before the "H." The Joven, having met with no serious accidents during the two years he had officiated as roughrider, had kept his nerve, and was still young enough to enjoy his hazardous duties most thoroughly.
He always had a large gallery of spectators, for every one on the estancia who could manage it trooped to the corral to criticise and to pass judgment. The sun-browned Joven, who preferred riding without stirrups, would appear, stripped to his drawers and vest, shod with canvas alpargates, with a revenque, or short raw-hide whip, in his hand. A young horse, who had hitherto run wild, would be let in and lassoed, with a second lasso thrown over his hind legs. Before tightening the lassoes the men threw a recado, or soft leather saddle on him, the Joven tugging at the string-girths until the unfortunate grass-fed animal looked like a wasp. The lassoes were tautened, and the youngster thrown over on his side. The Joven, grinning cheerfully, then forced a thong of raw hide into his unwilling pupil's mouth, whilst the young horse, half-mad with terror, rolled his eyes impotently. The Joven, standing astride over the fallen animal, half-dancing on his toes in his canvas shoes, would shout to the men to slacken the heel- rope, and then to let go the head-rope. As the terrified animal struggled to his feet, the Joven slipped nimbly on to the recado. Then came a brief pause, as the horse puzzled over the unaccustomed weight on his back, and those abominable girths that were cutting him in two, till, with his head between his knees, and his back arched like a bow, up he went vertically into the air, landing on all four feet. That irksome weight was still there, and he had received a sharp cut with some unknown instrument, but it might be worth while trying it again. So up he went a second time, the Joven grinning from ear to ear, but sitting like a rock, then, as it was as well to teach a young horse that bucking entailed punishment, the revenque descended smartly two or three times, and a revenque hurts. The puzzled youngster did not like it, and thought that he would try rolling for a change. The Joven slipped off with the dexterity of an acrobat, and dancing about on his toes, chose his moment, and was again on the horse's back as he rose. Then came a real contest and trial of skill between the four-legged and two-legged youngsters, as the horse began kicking furiously, and then reared, but do what he would that tiresome weight was still on his back, and there was an unaccustomed pressure on his sides. The Joven, his sun-baked round face wreathed in grins, as though he were having the time of his life, was now using his revenque in earnest, and the young horse decided that he would prefer to try a gallop at full speed. Off he went like an arrow from a bow, the Joven dexterously guiding him through the entrance to the corral, partly with the thong of raw hide, in part with light strokes of the revenque on the side of the head, and they disappeared in a dense cloud of dust over the limitless "camp." A quarter of an hour later they reappeared, the horse cantering quietly, and the boy, still grinning like a Cheshire cat, sitting quite loosely, with his legs dangling, as though he were in an arm-chair. The Joven slid to the ground, and commenced talking to the horse in Spanish, as he stroked his head. "Pingo! Pingo!" he cried, as he stroked him, the word Pingo being supposed in the Argentine, for some unknown reason, to exercise a magically soothing influence over a horse, and then, removing the raw-hide thong from the youngster's mouth, he unsaddled him and turned him loose with a resounding smack on his quarters, leaving him to meditate on the awful things that may befall a young horse when he attempts to misbehave. The light-hearted Joven, dripping with perspiration, wiped the sweat from his eyes, and, with unabated cheerfulness, took stock of the second animal he was to school, for he was to give three lessons that morning. When they were over, the youth's own mother would not have known him, so caked with dust and perspiration was he. He made his way to the swimming-bath, still cheerful and smiling, determined not to miss the midday meal by one second, for, like all the heroines of Mr. E. F. Benson's novels, the eighteen-year-old Joven was afflicted with a perpetual voracious hunger. When I complimented him at dinner on his very skilful performance, the Joven, being in a loquacious mood, said, after a pause for thought, "Oh, yes," beamed with friendliness, and promptly devoured another plateful of beef. I asked him whether he never regretted the quiet of his father's Cornish farm, in view of the strenuous exertions his duties as rough-rider at Espartillar imposed on him. The Joven knocked out his pipe, lit another, thought for five minutes, and then said, "No, it's fun," displaying every tooth in his head as he did so as a proof that his conversational brevity was due not to a surly disposition, but to the limitations of his vocabulary.
The pupils at Espartillar were exceedingly well treated. The house was most comfortably furnished, and contained a full-sized English billiard-table, two pianos, a plentiful supply of books, and a barrel- organ, for this was many years before the birth of the gramophone. It is the singular custom on most estancias to kill beef for six months of the year, and mutton for the remaining six, which entails a certain monotony of diet. We had fallen in for the beef-eating half-year, but the French wife of the English estancia-carpenter officiated as cook, and she had all the culinary genius of her countrywomen. Above all she avoided those twin abominations "Ajo" and "Aji," or garlic and green chilli, which Argentines cram into every dish, thus making them hideously unpalatable to Northern Europeans.
In an absolutely treeless land, without any coal measures, fuel is one of the greatest difficulties of camp life. In my time, in the city of Buenos Ayres, all the coal came from England, and cost, delivered, 5 pounds a ton. Its cost in the country, hauled for perhaps twenty miles over the roadless camp, would be prohibitive, and there was no wood to be had. For this reason, on every estancia there were some ten acres planted with peach trees. It seems horribly wasteful to cut down peach trees for fuel, but they grow very rapidly, burn admirably, and whilst they are standing the owner gets an unlimited supply of peaches for pickling and preserving. The soil of the Argentine suits peaches, and both sorts, the pink-fleshed European "free-stone" and the American yellow-fleshed "cling-stone," do splendidly. In Spanish, the former are called melocotones, the latter duraznos. At Espartillar there were quite twenty acres of peach trees, and when Lyon and I wished to be of use, the manager frequently asked us to hitch-up the wagon, and bring him in a few sackfuls of peaches for preserving.
Espartillar boasted a great neglected wilderness of a garden, as untidy and unkempt as a fashionable pianist's hair, but growing the most wonderful collection of fruit. Here pears, peaches, lemons, guavas, and strawberries flourished equally well in the accommodating Argentine climate, and the pears of South America, the famous peras de agua, must be tasted before their excellence can be imagined. The garden was traversed by an avenue of fine eucalyptus trees, amongst whose dusky foliage little screaming green parrakeets darted in and out all day long, like flashes of vivid emerald light. The garden was also, unfortunately, the favourite recreation-ground of a family of lively skunks, and the skunk is an animal whose terrific offensive powers necessitate extreme caution in approaching him. Should a young dog unwarily attempt to tackle a skunk, he had to be rigorously quarantined for a fortnight, for otherwise the inexpressibly sickening odour was unendurable.
Beyond the garden enclosure, the dun-coloured expanse of treeless featureless camp stretched its endless flat levels to the horizon, the wooden posts supporting the wire fences being the only sign that man had ever invaded these vast solitudes. Our minds are so constituted that we set bounds to everything, for everything to which we are accustomed has limits; one had a perpetual feeling that were one only to ride over the camp long enough, towns and human habitations must be reached somewhere. A glance at the map showed that this was not so. Due south one could have ridden hundreds of miles with no variations whatever to mark the distances achieved. This endless camp had apparently no beginning and no end; it was as though one had suddenly come face to face with Eternity.
All my experiences, however, are thirty years old. I believe that now, within a radius of fifty miles from Buenos Ayres, most of the camp has been broken up and ploughed. Growing wheat now covers the vast khaki-coloured plains I recollect dotted with roving herds of cattle. The picturesque and half-savage Gaucho, who lived entirely on meat, and would have scorned to have walked even a hundred yards on foot, has been replaced by the Italian agricultural labourer, who lives on polenta and macaroni, and will cheerfully trudge any distance to his work. The great solitudes have gone, for with tillage there must be roads now, and villages, and together with the solitudes the wonderful teeming bird-life must have vanished, too.
I prefer to recollect the Espartillar I knew, a place of unending spaces and glorious sunshine, with air almost as intoxicating as wine, where innumerable spurred plovers screamed raucously all day long, where the little ground-owls blinked unceasingly at the edge of their burrows; where bronze-green ibises flashed through the sunlight, and rose-coloured spoonbills trailed in pink streaks across the blue sky, as they flew in single file from one laguna to another. That marvellous bird-life was worth travelling seven thousand miles to see; wheatfields can be seen anywhere.