Chapter X - Our Nearest English Neighbour

Casa Antigua, our nearest English neighbour's house--Old Lombardy poplars--Cardoon thistle or wild artichoke--Mr. Royd, an English sheep-farmer--Making sheep's-milk cheeses under difficulties--Mr. Royd's native wife--The negro servants--The two daughters: a striking contrast--The white blue-eyed child and her dusky playmate--A happy family--Our visits to Casa Antigua--Gorgeous dinners--Estanislao and his love of wild life--The Royds' return visits--A homemade carriage-- The gaucho's primitive conveyance--The happy home broken up.

One of the most important estancias in our neighbourhood, at all events to us, was called Casa Antigua, and that it was an ancient dwelling-place in that district appeared likely enough, since the trees were the largest and had an appearance of extreme age. It must, however, be remembered that in speaking of ancient things on the pampas we mean things a century or two old, not many hundreds or thousands of years as in Europe. Three centuries in that part of South America takes us back to prehistoric times. These Lombardy poplars, planted in long rows, were the largest I had seen: they were very tall; many of them appeared to be dying of old age, and all had enormous rough-barked buttressed trunks. The other shade-trees were also old and gnarled, some of them dying. The house itself did not look ancient, and was built of unburnt bricks and thatched, and had a broad corridor supported by wooden posts or pillars.

The Casa Antigua was situated about six miles from our house, but looked no more than three on account of the great height of the trees, which made it appear large and conspicuous on that wide level plain. The land for miles round it was covered with a dense growth of cardoon thistles. Now the cardoon is the European artichoke run wild and its character somewhat altered in a different soil and climate. The large deep-cut leaves are of a palish grey-green colour, the stalks covered with a whitish-grey down, and the leaves and stems thickly set with long yellow spines. It grows in thick bushes, and the bushes grow close together to the exclusion of grasses and most other plant-life, and produces purple blossoms big as a small boy's head, on stems four or five feet high. The stalks, which are about as thick as a man's wrist, were used when dead and dry as firewood; and this indeed was the only fuel obtainable at that time in the country, except "cow chips," from the grazing lands and "peat" from the sheepfold. At the end of summer, in February, the firewood-gatherers would set to work gathering the cardoon-stalks, their hands and arms protected with sheep-skin gloves, and at that season our carters would bring in huge loads, to be stacked up in piles high as a house for the year's use.

The land where the cardoon grows so abundantly is not good for sheep, and at Casa Antigua all the land was of this character. The tenant was an Englishman, a Mr. George Royd, and it was thought by his neighbours that he had made a serious mistake which would perhaps lead to disastrous consequences, when investing his capital in the expensive fine-wool breeds to put them on such land. All this I heard years afterwards. At that time I only knew that he was our nearest English neighbour, and more to us on that account than any other. We certainly had other English neighbours--those who lived half a day's journey on horseback from us were our neighbours there--English, Welsh, Irish, Scotch, but they were not like Mr. Royd. These others, however prosperous (and some were the owners of large estates), came mostly from the working or lower middle class in their own country and were interested solely in their own affairs. Mr. Royd was of a different order. He was about forty-five when my years were seven, a handsome clean-shaved man with bright blue humorous eyes and brown hair. He was an educated man, and loved to meet with others of like mind with himself, with whom he could converse in his own language. There was no English in his house. He had a bright genial disposition, a love of fun, and a hearty ringing laugh it was a pleasure to hear. He was an enthusiast about his sheep-farming, always full of fine projects, always dreaming of the things he intended doing and of the great results which would follow. One of his pet notions was that cheeses made with sheep's milk would be worth any price he liked to put on them, and he accordingly began to make them under very great difficulties, since the sheep had to be broken to it and they yielded but a small quantity compared with the sheep of certain districts in France and other countries where they have been milked for many generations and have enlarged their udders. Worst of all, his native servants considered it a degradation to have to stoop to milk such creatures as sheep. "Why not milk the cats?" they scornfully demanded. However, he succeeded in making cheeses, and very nice they were, far nicer in fact than any native cheeses made from cows' milk we had ever tasted. But the difficulties were too great for him to produce them in sufficient quantity for the market, and eventually the sheep-milking came to an end.

Unfortunately Mr. Royd had no one to help him in his schemes, or to advise and infuse a little more practicality into him. His family could never have been anything but a burden and drag on him in his struggle, and his disaster probably resulted from his romantic and over-sanguine temper, which made him the husband of his wife and caused him to dream of a fortune built on cheeses made from sheep's milk.

His wife was a native; in other words, a lady of Spanish blood, of a good family, city born and bred. They had met in Buenos Ayres when in their bloom, at the most emotional period of life, and in spite of opposition from her people and of the tremendous difficulties in the way of a union between one of the Faith and a heretic in those religious days, they were eventually made man and wife. As a girl she had been beautiful; now, aged about forty, she was only fat--a large fat woman, with an extremely white skin, raven-black hair and eyebrows, and velvet-black eyes. That was Dona Mercedes as I knew her. She did no work in the house, and never went for a walk or a ride on horseback: she spent her time in an easy-chair, always well dressed, and in warm weather always with a fan in her hand. I can hear the rattle of that fan now as she played with it, producing a succession of graceful waving motions and rhythmic sounds as an accompaniment to the endless torrent of small talk which she poured out; for she was an exceedingly voluble person, and to assist in making the conversation more lively there were always two or three screaming parrots on their perches near her. She also liked to be surrounded by all the other females in the house, her two daughters and the indoor servants, four or five in number, all full-blooded negresses, black but comely, fat, pleasant-looking, laughing young and middle-aged women, all as a rule dressed in white. They were unmarried, but two or three of them were the mothers of certain small darkies to be seen playing about and rolling in the dust near the servants' quarters at the far end of the long low house.

The eldest daughter, Eulodia, was about fifteen as I first remember her, a tall slim handsome girl with blue-black hair, black eyes, coral-red lips, and a remarkably white skin without a trace of red colour in it. She was no doubt just like what her mother had been when the dashing impressionable young George Royd had first met her and lost his heart--and soul. The younger sister, about eight at that time, was a perfect contrast to Eulodia: she had taken after her father, and in colour and appearance generally was a perfect little English girl of the usual angel type, with long shining golden hair, worn in curls, eyes of the purest turquoise blue, and a complexion like the petals of a wild rose. Adelina was her pretty name, and to us Adelina was the most beautiful human being in the world, especially when seen with her dusky little playmate Liberata, who was of the same age and height and was the child of one of the black servants. These two had grown fond of each other from the cradle, and so Liberata had been promoted to be Adelina's constant companion in the house and to wear pretty dresses. Being a mulatita she was dark or dusky skinned, with a reddish tinge in the duskiness, purple-red lips, and liquid black eyes with orange-brown reflections in them--the eyes called tortoiseshell in America. Her crisp cast-iron coloured hair was worn like a fleece round her small head, and her features were so refined one could only suppose that her father had been a singularly handsome as well as a white man. Adelina and Liberata were inseparable, except at meal-times, when the dusky little girl had to go back among her own tribe on the mother's side; and they formed an exquisite picture as one often saw them, standing by the Senora's chair with their arms round each other's necks--the pretty dark-skinned child and the beautiful white child with shining hair and blue forget-me-not eyes.

Adelina was her father's favourite, but he was fond of all his people, the black servants included, and they of him, and the life at Casa Antigua appeared to be an exceedingly happy and harmonious one.

Looking back at this distance of time it strikes me when I come to think of it, that it was a most extraordinary menage, a collection of the most incongruous beings it would be possible to bring together --a sort of Happy Family in the zoological sense. It did not seem so at the time, when in any house on the wide pampas one would meet with people whose lives and characters would be regarded in civilized countries as exceedingly odd and almost incredible.

It was a red-letter day to us children when, about once a month, we were packed into a trap and driven with our parents to spend a day at Casa Antigua. The dinner at noon was the most gorgeous affair of the kind we knew. One of Mr. Royd's enthusiasms was cookery--the making of rare and delicate dishes--and the servants had been taught so well that we used to be amazed at the richness and profusion of the repast. These dinners were to us like the "collations" and feasts so minutely and lovingly described in the Arabian Nights, especially that dinner of many courses given by the Barmecide to his hungry guest which followed the first tantalizing imaginary one. The wonder was that any man in the position of a sheep-farmer in a semi-barbarous land, far from any town, could provide such dinners for his visitors.

After dinner my best time would come, when I would steal off to look for Estanislao, the young native horseman, who was only too enthusiastic about wild life and spent more time hunting rheas than in attending to his duties. "When I see an ostrich," he would say, "I leave the flock and drop my work no matter what it is. I would rather lose my place on the estancia than not chase it." But he never lost his place, since it appeared that no one could do anything wrong on the estancia and not be forgiven by its master.

Then Estanislao, a big fellow in gaucho dress, wearing a red handkerchief tied round his head in place of hat, and a mass or cloud of blackish crinkled hair on his neck and shoulders, would take me round the plantation to show me any nests he had found and any rare birds that happened to be about.

Towards evening we would be bundled back into the trap and driven home. Then, when the day came round for the return visit, Mr. Royd would bundle his family into their "carriage," which he, without being a carriage-builder or even a carpenter, had made with his own hands. It had four solid wooden wheels about a yard in diameter, and upright wooden sides about four or five feet high. It was springless and without seats, and had a long pole to which two horses were fastened, and Estanislao, mounted on one, would thrash them into a gallop and carry the thing bounding over the roadless plain. The fat lady and other passengers were saved from being bumped to death by several mattresses, pillows, and cushions heaped inside. It was the strangest, most primitive conveyance I ever saw, except the one commonly used by a gaucho to take his wife on a visit to a neighbour's house when she was in a delicate condition or too timid to ride on a horse or not well enough off to own a side-saddle. This was a well-stretched, dried horse-hide, with a lasso attached at one end to the head or fore-part of the hide and the other end to the gaucho's horse, as a rule to the surcingle. A stool or cushion was placed in the centre of the big hide for the lady to sit on, and when she had established herself on it the man would whip up his horse and away he would gallop, dragging the strange conveyance after him--a sight which filled the foreigner with amazement.

Our intimate happy relations with the Royd family continued till about my twelfth year, then came rather suddenly to an end. Mr. Royd, who had always seemed one of the brightest, happiest men we knew, all at once fell into a state of profound melancholy. No one could guess the cause, as he was quite well and appeared to be prosperous. He was at length persuaded by his friends to go to Buenos Ayres to consult a doctor, and went alone and stayed in the house of an Anglo-Argentine family who were also friends of ours. By-and-by the dreadful news came that he had committed suicide by cutting his throat with a razor. His wife and daughters then left the Casa Antigua, and not long afterwards Dona Mercedes wrote to my mother that they were left penniless; that their flocks and other possessions at the estancia were to be sold for the benefit of their creditors, and that she and her daughters were living on the charity of some of her relations who were not well off. Her only hope was that her two daughters, being good-looking girls, would find husbands and be in a position to keep her from want. Her one word about her dead husband, the lovable, easy-going George Royd, the bright handsome English boy who had wooed and won her so many years before, was that she looked upon her meeting with him in girlhood as the great calamity of her life, that in killing himself and leaving his wife and daughters to poverty and suffering, he had committed an unpardonable crime.

So ends the story of our nearest English neighbour.