Chapter XII - The Head Of A Decayed House

The Estancia Canada Seca--Low lands and floods--Don Anastacio, a gaucho exquisite--A greatly respected man--Poor relations--Don Anastacio a pig-fancier--Narrow escape from a pig--Charm of the low green lands--The flower called macachina--A sweet-tasting bulb-- Beauty of the green flower-sprinkled turf--A haunt of the golden plover--The Bolas--My plover-hunting experience--Rebuked by a gaucho--A green spot, our playground in summer and lake in winter--The venomous toad-like Caratophrys--Vocal performance of the toad-like creature--We make war on them--The great lake battle and its results.

In this chapter I wish to introduce the reader to the last but one of the half a dozen of our nearest neighbours, selected as typical of the smaller estancieros--a class of landowners and cattle-breeders then in their decay and probably now fast vanishing. This was Don Anastacio Buenavida, who was an original person too in his little way. He was one of our very nearest neighbours, his estancia house being no more than two short miles from us on the south side. Like most of these old establishments, it was a long low building with a thatched roof, enclosures for cattle and sheep close by, and an old grove or plantation of shade-trees bordered with rows of tall Lombardy poplars. The whole place had a decayed and neglected appearance, the grounds being weedy and littered with bleached bones and other rubbish: fences and ditches had also been destroyed and obliterated, so that the cattle were free to rub their hides on the tree trunks and gnaw at the bark. The estancia was called Canada Seca, from a sluggish muddy stream near the house which almost invariably dried up in summer; in winter after heavy rains it overflowed its low banks, and in very wet seasons lake-like ponds of water were formed all over the low-lying plain between Canada Seca and our house. A rainy season was welcome to us children: the sight of wide sheets of clear shallow water with a vivid green turf beneath excited us joyfully, and also afforded us some adventurous days, one of which will be related by and by.

Don Anastacio Buenavida was a middle-aged man, a bachelor, deeply respected by his neighbours, and even looked on as a person of considerable importance. So much did I hear in his praise that as a child I had a kind of reverential feeling for him, which lasted for years and did not, I think, wholly evaporate until I was in my teens and began to form my own judgments. He was quite a little man, not more than an inch or two over five feet high, slim, with a narrow waist and small ladylike hands and feet. His small oval face was the colour of old parchment; he had large dark pathetic eyes, a beautifully shaped black moustache, and long black hair, worn in symmetrical ringlets to his shoulders. In his dress too he was something of an exquisite. He wore the picturesque gaucho costume; a camiseta, or blouse, of the finest black cloth, profusely decorated with silver buttons, puffs and pleats, and scarlet and green embroidery; a chiripa, the shawl-like garment worn in place of trousers, of the finest yellow or vicuna-coloured wool, the white carsoncillos_, or wide drawers, showing below, of the finest linen, with more fringe and lace-work than was usual in that garment. His boots were well polished, and his poncho, or cloak, of the finest blue cloth, lined with scarlet.

It must have taken Don Anastacio a couple of hours each morning to get himself up in this fashion, ringlets and all, and once up he did nothing but sit in the living-room, sipping bitter mate and taking part from time to time in the general conversation, speaking always in low but impressive tones. He would say something about the weather, the lack or superabundance of water, according to the season, the condition of his animals and the condition of the pasture--in fact, just what everybody else was saying but of more importance as coming from him. All listened to his words with the profoundest attention and respect, and no wonder, since most of those who sat in his living- room, sucking mate, were his poor relations who fed on his bounty.

Don Anastacio was the last of a long line of estancieros once rich in land and cattle, but for generations the Canada Seca estate had been dwindling as land was sold, and now there was little left, and the cattle and horses were few, and only a small flock of sheep kept just to provide the house with mutton. His poor relations living scattered about the district knew that he was not only an improvident but an exceedingly weak and soft-hearted man, in spite of his grand manner, and many of the poorest among them had been allowed to build their ranches on his land and to keep a few animals for their sustenance: most of these had built their hovels quite close to the estancia house, behind the plantation, so that it was almost like a hamlet at this point. These poor neighbours had the freedom of the kitchen or living-room; it was usually full of them, especially of the women, gossiping, sipping endless mate, and listening with admiring attention to the wise words which fell at intervals from the lips of the head of the family or tribe.

Altogether, Don Anastacio in his ringlets was an ineffectual, colourless, effeminate person, a perfect contrast to his ugly, barrel- shaped, badly-dressed but robust-minded neighbour, Gandara. Yet he too had a taste in animals which distinguished him among his fellow- landowners, and even reminded one of Gandara in a ridiculous way. For just as Gandara was devoted to piebald horses, so Don Anastacio was devoted to pigs. It would not have been like him if these had been pigs for profit: they were not animals fit to be fattened for the market, and no person would have thought of buying such beasts. They were of the wild-pig breed, descended originally from the European animal introduced by the early Spanish colonists, but after two or three centuries of feral life a good deal changed in appearance from their progenitors. This feral pig was called barraco in the vernacular, and was about a third less in size than the domestic animal, with longer legs and more pointed face, and of a uniform deep rust-red in colour. Among hundreds I never saw one with any black or white on it.

I believe that before Don Anastacio's time a few of these wild pigs had been kept as a curiosity at the estancia, and that when he came into possession he allowed them to increase and roam in herds all over the place, doing much harm by rooting up many acres of the best grazing land in their search after grubs, earthworms, mole-crickets, and blind snakes, along with certain roots and bulbs which they liked. This was their only provender when there happened to be no carcasses of cows, horses, or sheep for them to feed on in company with the dogs and carrion hawks. He would not allow his pigs to be killed, but probably his poor relations and pensioners were out occasionally by night to stick a pig when beef and mutton were wanting. I never tasted or wanted to taste their flesh. The gaucho is inordinately fond of the two gamiest-flavoured animals in the pampas--the ostrich or rhea and the hairy armadillo. These I could eat and enjoy eating, although I was often told by English friends that they were too strong for their stomachs; but the very thought of this wild pig-flesh produced a sensation of disgust.

One day when I was about eight years old I was riding home at a lonely spot three or four miles out, going at a fast gallop by a narrow path through a dense growth of giant thistles seven or eight feet high, when all at once I saw a few yards before me a big round heap of thistle plants, which had been plucked up entire and built into a shelter from the hot sun about four feet high. As I came close to it a loud savage grunt and the squealing of many little piglets issued from the mound, and out from it rushed a furious red sow and charged me. The pony suddenly swerved aside in terror, throwing me completely over on one side, but luckily I had instinctively gripped the mane with both hands, and with a violent effort succeeded in getting a leg back over the horse, and we swiftly left the dangerous enemy behind. Then, remembering all I had been told about the ferocity of these pigs, it struck me that I had had an extremely narrow escape, since if I had been thrown off the savage beast would have had me at her mercy and would have certainly killed me in a couple of minutes; and as she was probably mad with hunger and thirst in that lonely hot spot, with a lot of young to feed, it would not have taken her long to devour me, bones and boots included.

This set me thinking on the probable effect of my disappearance, of my mother's terrible anxiety, and what they would think and do about it They would know from the return of the pony that I had fallen somewhere: they would have searched for me all over the surrounding plain, especially in all the wilder, lonelier places where birds breed; on lands where the cardoon thistle flourished most, and in the vast beds of bulrushes in the marshes, but would not have found me. And at length when the searching was all over, some gaucho riding by that cattle-path through the thistles would catch sight of a piece of cloth, a portion of a boy's garment, and the secret of my end would be discovered.

I had never liked the red pigs, on account of the way they ploughed up and disfigured the beautiful green sward with their iron-hard snouts, also because of the powerful and disgusting smell they emitted, but after this adventure with the sow the feeling was much stronger, and I wondered more and more why that beautiful soul, Don Anastacio, cherished an affection for such detestable beasts.

In spring and early summer the low-lying areas about Canada Seca were pleasant places to see and ride on where the pigs had not defaced them: they kept their bright verdure when the higher grounds were parched and brown; then too, after rain, they were made beautiful with the bright little yellow flower called macachina.

As the macachina was the first wild flower to blossom in the land it had as great an attraction to us children as the wild strawberry, ground-ivy, celandine, and other first blooms for the child in England. Our liking for our earliest flower was all the greater because we could eat it and liked its acid taste, also because it had a bulb very nice to eat--a small round bulb the size of a hazel nut, of a pearly white, which tasted like sugar and water. That little sweetness was enough to set us all digging the bulbs up with table knives, but even little children can value things for their beauty as well as taste. The macachina was like the wood-sorrel in shape, both flower and leaf, but the leaves were much smaller and grew close to the ground, as the plant flourished most where the grass was close- cropped by the sheep, forming a smooth turf like that of our chalk downs. The flowers were never crowded together like the buttercup, forming sheets of shining yellow, but grew two or three inches apart, each slender stem producing a single flower, which stood a couple of inches above the turf. So fine were the stems that the slightest breath of wind would set the blossoms swaying, and it was then a pretty sight, and often held me motionless in the midst of some green place, when all around me for hundreds of yards the green carpet of grass was abundantly sprinkled with thousands of the little yellow blossoms all swaying to the light wind.

These green level lands were also a favourite haunt of the golden plover on their first arrival in September from their breeding-places many thousands of miles away in the arctic regions. Later in the season, as the water dried up, they would go elsewhere. They came in flocks and were then greatly esteemed as a table-bird, especially by my father, but we could only have them when one of my elder brothers, who was the sportsman of the family, went out to shoot them. As a very small boy I was not allowed to use a gun, but as I had been taught to throw the bolas by the little native boys I sometimes associated with, I thought I might be able to procure a few of the birds with it. The bolas, used for such an object, is a string a couple of yards long, made from fine threads cut from a colt's hide, twisted or braided, and a leaden ball at each end, one being the size of a hen's egg, the other less than half the size. The small ball is held in the hand, the other swung round three or four times and the bolas then launched at the animal or bird one wishes to capture.

I spent many hours on several consecutive days following the flocks about on my pony, hurling the bolas at them without bringing down more than one bird. My proceedings were no doubt watched with amusement by the people of the estancia house, who were often sitting out of doors at the everlasting mate-drinking; and perhaps Don Anastacio did not like it, as he was, I imagine, something of a St. Francis with regard to the lower animals. He certainly loved his abominable pigs. At all events on the last day of my vain efforts to procure golden plover, a big, bearded gaucho, with hat stuck on the back of his head, rode forth from the house on a large horse, and was passing at a distance of about fifty yards when he all at once stopped, and turning came at a gallop to within a few feet of me and shouted in a loud voice: "Why do you come here, English boy, frightening and chasing away God's little birds? Don't you know that they do no harm to any one, and it is wrong to hurt them?" And with that he galloped off.

I was angry at being rebuked by an ignorant ruffianly gaucho, who like most of his kind would tell lies, gamble, cheat, fight, steal, and do other naughty things without a qualm. Besides, it struck me as funny to hear the golden plover, which I wanted for the table, called "God's little birds," just as if they were wrens or swallows or humming- birds, or the darling little many-coloured kinglet of the bulrush beds. But I was ashamed, too, and gave up the chase.

The nearest of the moist green low-lying spots I have described as lying south of us, between our house and Canada Seca, was not more than twenty minutes' walk from the gate. It was a flat, oval-shaped area of about fifty acres, and kept its vivid green colour and freshness when in January the surrounding land was all of a rusty brown colour. It was to us a delightful spot to run about and play on, and though the golden plover did not come there it was haunted during the summer by small flocks of the pretty buff-coloured sandpiper, a sandpiper with the habits of a plover, one, too, which breeds in the arctic regions and spends half the year in southern South America. This green area would become flooded after heavy rains. It was then like a vast lake to us, although the water was not more than about three feet deep, and at such times it was infested with the big venomous toad-like creature called escuerzo in the vernacular, which simply means toad, but naturalists have placed it in quite a different family of the batrachians and call it Ceratophrys ornata It is toad- like in form but more lumpish, with a bigger head; it is big as a man's fist, of a vivid green with black symmetrical markings on its back, and primrose-yellow beneath. A dreadful looking creature, a toad that preys on the real or common toads, swallowing them alive just as the hamadryad swallows other serpents, venomous or not, and as the Cribo of Martinique, a big non-venomous serpent, kills and swallows the deadly fer-de-lance.

In summer we had no fear of this creature, as it buries itself in the soil and aestivates during the hot, dry season, and comes forth in wet weather. I never knew any spot where these creatures were more abundant than in that winter lake of ours, and at night in the flooded time we used to lie awake listening to their concerts. The Ceratophrys croaks when angry, and as it is the most truculent of all batrachians it works itself into a rage if you go near it. Its first efforts at chanting or singing sounds like the deep, harsh, anger-croak prolonged, but as the time goes on they gradually acquire, night by night, a less raucous and a louder, more sustained and far- reaching sound. There was always very great variety in the tones; and while some continued deep and harsh--the harshest sound in nature-- others were clearer and not unmusical; and in a large number there were always a few in the scattered choir that out-soared all the others in high, long-drawn notes, almost organ-like in quality.

Listening to their varied performance one night as we lay in bed, my sporting brother proposed that on the following morning we should drag one of the cattle-troughs to the lake to launch it and go on a voyage in quest of these dangerous, hateful creatures and slay them with our javelins. It was not an impossible scheme, since the creatures were to be seen at this season swimming or floating on the surface, and in our boat or canoe we should also detect them as they moved about over the green sward at the bottom.

Accordingly, next morning after breakfast we set out, without imparting our plans to any one, and with great labour dragged the trough to the water. It was a box-shaped thing, about twenty feet long and two feet wide at the bottom and three at the top. We were also provided with three javelins, one for each of us, from my brother's extensive armoury.

He had about that time been reading ancient history, and fired with the story of old wars when men fought hand to hand, he had dropped guns and pistols for the moment and set himself with furious zeal to manufacture the ancient weapons--bows and arrows, pikes, shield, battle-axes and javelins. These last were sticks about six feet long, nicely made of pine-wood--he had no doubt bribed the carpenter to make them for him--and pointed with old knife-blades six or seven inches long, ground to a fearful sharpness. Such formidable weapons were not required for our purpose: they would have served well enough if we had been going out against Don Anastacio's fierce and powerful swine; but it was his order, and to his wild and warlike imagination the toad- like creatures were the warriors of some hostile tribe opposing us, I forget if in Asia or Africa, which had to be conquered and extirpated.

No sooner had we got into our long, awkwardly-shaped boat than it capsized and threw us all into the water; that was but the first of some dozens of upsets and fresh drenchings we experienced during the day. However, we succeeded in circumnavigating the lake and crossing it two or three times from side to side, and in slaying seventy or eighty of the enemy with our javelins.

At length, when the short, mid-winter day was in its decline, and we were all feeling stiff and cold and half-famished, our commander thought proper to bring the great lake battle, with awful slaughter of our barbarian foes, to an end, and we wearily trudged home in our soaking clothes and squeaking shoes. We were too tired to pay much heed to the little sermon we had expected, and glad to get into dry clothes and sit down to food and tea. Then to sit by the fire as close as we could get to it, until we all began to sneeze and to feel our throats getting sore and our faces burning hot. And, finally, when we went burning and shivering with cold to bed we could not sleep; and hark! the grand nightly chorus was going on just as usual. No, in spite of the great slaughter we had not exterminated the enemy; on the contrary, they appeared to be rejoicing over a great victory, especially when high above the deep harsh notes the long-drawn, organ- like sounds of the leaders were heard.

How I then wished, when tossing and burning feverishly in bed, that I had rebelled and refused to take part in that day's adventure! I was too young for it, and again and again, when thrusting one of the creatures through with my javeline, I had experienced a horrible disgust and shrinking at the spectacle. Now in my wakeful hours, with that tremendous chanting in my ears, it all came back to me and was like a nightmare.