Chapter XIV - The Dovecote

A favourite climbing tree--The desire to fly--Soaring birds--A peregrine falcon--The dovecote and pigeon-pies--The falcon's depredations--A splendid aerial feat--A secret enemy of the dovecote-- A short-eared owl in a loft--My father and birds--A strange flower-- The owls' nesting-place--Great owl visitations.

By the side of the moat at the far end of the enclosed ground there grew a big red willow, the tree already mentioned in a former chapter as the second largest in the plantation. It had a thick round trunk, wide-spreading horizontal branches, and rough bark. In its shape, when the thin foliage was gone, it was more like an old oak than a red willow. This was my favourite tree when I had once mastered the difficult and dangerous art of climbing. It was farthest from the house of all the trees, on a waste weedy spot which no one else visited, and this made it an ideal place for me, and whenever I was in the wild arboreal mood I would climb the willow to find a good stout branch high up on which to spend an hour, with a good view of the wide green plain before me and the sight of grazing flocks and herds, and of houses and poplar groves looking blue in the distance. Here, too, in this tree, I first felt the desire for wings, to dream of the delight it would be to circle upwards to a great height and float on the air without effort, like the gull and buzzard and harrier and other great soaring land and water birds. But from the time this notion and desire began to affect me I envied most the great crested screamer, an inhabitant then of all the marshes in our vicinity. For here was a bird as big or bigger than a goose, as heavy almost as I was myself, who, when he wished to fly, rose off the ground with tremendous labour, and then as he got higher and higher flew more and more easily, until he rose so high that he looked no bigger than a lark or pipit, and at that height he would continue floating round and round in vast circles for hours, pouring out those jubilant cries at intervals which sounded to us so far below like clarion notes in the sky. If I could only get off the ground like that heavy bird and rise as high, then the blue air would make me as buoyant and let me float all day without pain or effort like the bird! This desire has continued with me through my life, yet I have never wished to fly in a balloon or airship, since I should then be tied to a machine and have no will or soul of my own. The desire has only been gratified a very few times in that kind of dream called levitation, when one rises and floats above the earth without effort and is like a ball of thistledown carried by the wind.

My favourite red willow was also the chosen haunt of another being, a peregrine falcon, a large handsome female that used to spend some months each year with us, and would sit for hours every day in the tree. It was an ideal tree for the falcon, too, not only because it was a quiet spot where it could doze the hot hours away in safety, but also on account of the numbers of pigeons we used to keep. The pigeon- house, a round, tower-shaped building, whitewashed outside, with a small door always kept locked, was usually tenanted by four or five hundred birds. These cost us nothing to keep, and were never fed, as they picked up their own living on the plain, and being strong fliers and well used to the dangers of the open country abounding in hawks, they ranged far from home, going out in small parties of a dozen or more to their various distant feeding-grounds. When out riding we used to come on these flocks several miles from home, and knew they were our birds since no one else in that neighbourhood kept pigeons. They were highly valued, especially by my father, who preferred a broiled pigeon to mutton cutlets for breakfast, and was also fond of pigeon- pies. Once or twice every week, according to the season, eighteen or twenty young birds, just ready to leave the nest, were taken from the dovecote to be put into a pie of gigantic size, and this was usually the grandest dish on the table when we had a lot of people to dinner or supper.

Every day the falcon, during the months she spent with us, took toll of the pigeons, and though these depredations annoyed my father he did nothing to stop them. He appeared to think that one or two birds a day didn't matter much as the birds were so many. The falcon's custom was, after dozing a few hours in the willow, to fly up and circle high in the air above the buildings, whereupon the pigeons, losing their heads in their terror, would rush up in a cloud to escape their deadly enemy. This was exactly what their enemy wanted them to do, and no sooner would they rise to the proper height than she would make her swoop, and singling out her victim strike it down with a blow of her lacerating claws; down like a stone it would fall, and the hawk, after a moment's pause in mid-air, would drop down after it and catch it in her talons before it touched the tree-tops, then carry it away to feed on at leisure out on the plain. It was a magnificent spectacle, and although witnessed so often it always greatly excited me.

One day my father went to the galpon, the big barn-like building used for storing wood, hides, and horse-hair, and seeing him go up the ladder I climbed up after him. It was an immense vacant place containing nothing but a number of empty cases on one side of the floor and empty flour-barrels, standing upright, on the other. My father began walking about among the cases, and by and by called me to look at a young pigeon, apparently just killed, which he had found in one of the empty boxes. Now, how came it to be there? he asked. Rats, no doubt, but how strange and almost incredible it seemed that a rat, however big, had been able to scale the pigeon-house, kill a pigeon and drag it back a distance of twenty-five yards, then mount with it to the loft, and after all that labour to leave it uneaten! The wonder grew when he began to find more young pigeons, all young birds almost of an age to have left the nest, and only one or two out of half a dozen with any flesh eaten.

Here was an enemy to the dovecote who went about at night and did his killing quietly, unseen by any one, and was ten times more destructive than the falcon, who killed her adult old pigeon daily in sight of all the world and in a magnificent way!

I left him pondering over the mystery, gradually working himself up into a rage against rats, and went off to explore among the empty barrels standing upright on the other side of the loft.

"Another pigeon!" I shouted presently, filled with pride at the discovery and fishing the bird up from the bottom. He came over to me and began to examine the dead bird, his wrath still increasing; then I shouted gleefully again, "Another pigeon!" and altogether I shouted "Another pigeon!" about five times, and by that time he was in a quite furious temper. "Rats--rats!" he exclaimed, "killing all these pigeons and dragging them up here just to put them away in empty barrels--who ever heard of such a thing!" No stronger language did he use. Like the vicar's wonderfully sober-minded daughter, as described by Marjory Fleming, "he never said a single dam," for that was the sort of man he was, but he went back fuming to his boxes.

Meanwhile I continued my investigations, and by and by, peering into an empty barrel received one of the greatest shocks I had ever experienced. Down at the bottom of the barrel was a big brown-and- yellow mottled owl, one of a kind I had never seen, standing with its claws grasping a dead pigeon and its face turned up in alarm at mine. What a face it was!--a round grey disc, with black lines like spokes radiating from the centre, where the beak was, and the two wide-open staring orange-coloured eyes, the wheel-like head surmounted by a pair of ear-or horn-like black feathers! For a few moments we stared at one another, then recovering myself I shouted, "Father--an owl!" For although I had never seen its like before I knew it was an owl. Not until that moment had I known any owl except the common burrowing-owl of the plain, a small grey-and-white bird, half diurnal in its habits, with a pretty dove-like voice when it hooted round the house of an evening.

In a few moments my father came running over to my side, an iron bar in his hand, and looking into the barrel began a furious assault on the bird. "This then is the culprit!" he cried. "This is the rat that has been destroying my birds by the score! Now he's going to pay for it;" and so on, striking down with the bar while the bird struggled frantically to rise and make its escape; but in the end it was killed and thrown out on the floor.

That was the first and only time I saw my father kill a bird, and nothing but his extreme anger against the robber of his precious pigeons would have made him do a thing so contrary to his nature. He was quite willing to have birds killed--young pigeons, wild ducks, plover, snipe, whimbrel, tinamou or partridge, and various others which he liked to eat--but the killing always had to be done by others. He hated to see any bird killed that was not for the table, and that was why he tolerated the falcon, and even allowed a pair of caranchos, or carrrion-eagles--birds destructive to poultry, and killers when they got the chance of newly-born lambs and sucking- pigs--to have their huge nest in one of the old peach-trees for several years. I never saw him angrier than once when a visitor staying in the house, going out with his gun one day suddenly threw it up to his shoulder and brought down a passing swallow.

That was my first encounter with the short-eared owl, a world- wandering species, known familiarly to the sportsman in England as the October or woodcock owl; an inhabitant of the whole of Europe, also of Asia, Africa, America, Australasia, and many Atlantic and Pacific islands. No other bird has so vast a range; yet nobody in the house could tell me anything about it, excepting that it was an owl, which I knew, and no such bird was found in our neighbourhood. Several months later I found out more about it, and this was when I began to ramble about the plain on my pony.

One of the most attractive spots to me at that time, when my expeditions were not yet very extended, was a low-lying moist stretch of ground about a mile and a half from home, where on account of the moisture it was always a vivid green. In spring it was like a moist meadow in England, a perfect garden of wild flowers, and as it was liable to become flooded in wet winters it was avoided by the vizcachas, the big rodents that make their warrens or villages of huge burrows all over the plain. Here I used to go in quest of the most charming flowers which were not found in other places; one, a special favourite on account of its delicious fragrance, being the small lily called by the natives Lagrimas de la Virgin--Tears of the Virgin. Here at one spot the ground to the extent of an acre or so was occupied by one plant of a peculiar appearance, to the complete exclusion of the tall grasses and herbage in other parts. It grew in little tussocks like bushes, each plant composed of twenty or thirty stalks of a woody toughness and about two and a half feet high. The stems were thickly clothed with round leaves, soft as velvet to the touch and so dark a green that at a little distance they looked almost black against the bright green of the moist turf. Their beauty was in the blossoming season, when every stem produced its dozen or more flowers growing singly among the leaves, in size and shape like dog- roses, the petals of the purest, loveliest yellow. As the flowers grew close to the stalk, to gather them it was necessary to cut the stalk at the root with all its leaves and flowers, and this I sometimes did to take it to my mother, who had a great love of wild flowers. But no sooner would I start with a bunch of flowering stalks in my hand than the lovely delicate petals would begin to drop off, and before I was half way home there would not be a petal left. This extreme frailty or sensitiveness used to infect me with the notion that this flower was something more than a mere flower, something like a sentient being, and that it had a feeling in it which caused it to drop its shining petals and perish when removed from its parent root and home.

One day in the plant's blossoming time, I was slowly walking my pony through the dark bottle-green tufts, when a big yellowish-tawny owl got up a yard or so from the hoofs, and I instantly recognized it as the same sort of bird as our mysterious pigeon-killer. And there on the ground where it had been was its nest, just a slight depression with a few dry bents by way of lining and five round white eggs. From that time I was a frequent visitor to the owls, and for three summers they bred at the same spot in spite of the anxiety they suffered on my account, and I saw and grew familiar with their quaint-looking young, clothed in white down and with long narrow pointed heads more like the heads of aquatic birds than of round-headed flat-faced owls.

Later, I became even better acquainted with the short-eared owl. A year or several years would sometimes pass without one being seen, then all at once they would come in numbers, and this was always when there had been a great increase in field mice and other small rodents, and the owl population all over the country had in some mysterious way become aware of the abundance and had come to get their share of it. At these times you could see the owls abroad in the late afternoon, before sunset, in quest of prey, quartering the ground like harriers, and dropping suddenly into the grass at intervals, while at dark the air resounded with their solemn hooting, a sound as of a deep-voiced mastiff baying at a great distance.

As I have mentioned our famous pigeon-pies, when describing the dovecote, I may as well conclude this chapter with a fuller account of our way of living as to food, a fascinating subject to most persons. The psychologists tell us a sad truth when they say that taste, being the lowest or least intellectual of our five senses, is incapable of registering impressions on the mind; consequently we cannot recall or recover vanished flavours as we can recover, and mentally see and hear, long past sights and sounds. Smells, too, when we cease smelling, vanish and return not, only we remember that blossoming orange grove where we once walked, and beds of wild thyme and penny- royal when we sat on the grass, also flowering bean and lucerne fields, filled and fed us, body and soul, with delicious perfumes. In like manner we can recollect the good things we consumed long years ago--the things we cannot eat now because we are no longer capable of digesting and assimilating them; it is like recalling past perilous adventures by land and water in the brave young days when we loved danger for its own sake. There was, for example, the salad of cold sliced potatoes and onions, drenched in oil and vinegar, a glorious dish with cold meat to go to bed on! Also hot maize-meal cakes eaten with syrup at breakfast, and other injudicious cakes. As a rule it was a hot breakfast and midday dinner; an afternoon tea, with hot bread and scones and peach-preserve, and a late cold supper. For breakfast, mutton cutlets, coffee, and things made with maize. Eggs were plentiful--eggs of fowl, duck, goose, and wild fowl's eggs--wild duck and plover in their season. In spring--August to October--we occasionally had an ostrich or rhea's egg in the form of a huge omelette at breakfast, and it was very good. The common native way of cooking it by thrusting a rod heated red through the egg, then burying it in the hot ashes to complete the cooking, did not commend itself to us. From the end of July to the end of September we feasted on plovers' eggs at breakfast. In appearance and taste they were precisely like our lapwings' eggs, only larger, the Argentine lapwing being a bigger bird than its European cousin. In those distant days the birds were excessively abundant all over the pampas where sheep were pastured, for at that time there were few to shoot wild birds and nobody ever thought of killing a lapwing for the table. The country had not then been overrun by bird-destroying immigrants from Europe, especially by Italians. Outside of the sheep zone in the exclusively cattle-raising country, where the rough pampas grasses and herbage had not been eaten down, the plover were sparsely distributed.

I remember that one day, when I was thirteen, I went out one morning after breakfast to look for plovers' eggs, just at the beginning of the laying season when all the eggs one found were practically new- laid. My plan was that of the native boys, to go at a fast gallop over the plain and mark the spot far ahead where a lapwing was seen to rise and fly straight away to some distance. For this method some training is necessary to success, as in many cases more birds than one-- sometimes as many as three or four--would be seen to rise at various points and distances, and one had to mark and keep in memory the exact spots to visit them successively and find the nests. The English method of going out and quartering the ground in search of a nest in likely places where the birds breed was too slow for us.

The nests I found that morning contained one or two and sometimes three eggs--very rarely the full clutch of four. Before midday I had got back with a bag of sixty-four eggs; and that was the largest number I ever gathered at one time.

Our dinner consisted of meat and pumpkin, boiled or baked, maize "in the milk" in its season and sweet potatoes, besides the other common vegetables and salads. Maize-meal puddings and pumpkin pies and tarts were common with us, but the sweet we loved best was a peach-pie, made like an apple-pie with a crust, and these came in about the middle of February and lasted until April or even May, when our late variety, which we called "winter peach," ripened.

My mother was a clever and thrifty housekeeper, and I think she made more of the peach than any other resident in the country who possessed an orchard. Her peach preserves, which lasted us the year round, were celebrated in our neighbourhood. Peach preserves were in most English houses, but our house was alone in making pickled peaches: I think this was an invention of her own; I do not know if it has taken on, but we always had pickled peaches on the table and preferred them to all other kinds, and so did every person who tasted them.

I here recall an amusing incident with regard to our pickled peaches, and will relate it just because it serves to bring in yet another of our old native neighbours. I never thought of him when describing the others, as he was not so near us and we saw little of him and his people. His name was Bentura Gutierres, and he called himself an estanciero--a landowner and head of a cattle establishment; but there was very little land left and practically no cattle--only a few cows, a few sheep, a few horses. His estate had been long crumbling away and there was hardly anything left; but he was a brave spirit and had a genial, breezy manner, and dressed well in the European mode, with trousers and coat and waistcoat--this last garment being of satin and a very bright blue. And he talked incessantly of his possessions: his house, his trees, his animals, his wife and daughters. And he was immensely popular in the neighbourhood, no doubt because he was the father of four rather good-looking, marriageable girls; and as he kept open house his kitchen was always full of visitors, mostly young men, who sipped mate by the hour, and made themselves agreeable to the girls.

One of Don Ventura's most delightful traits--that is, to us young people--was his loud voice. I think it was a convention in those days for estancieros or cattlemen to raise their voices according to their importance in the community. When several gauchos are galloping over the plain, chasing horses, hunting or marking cattle, the one who is head of the gang shouts his directions at the top of his voice. Probably in this way the habit of shouting at all times by landowners and persons in authority had been acquired. And so it pleased us very much when Don Ventura came one evening to see my father and consented to sit down to partake of supper with us. We loved to listen to his shouted conversation.

My parents apologized for having nothing but cold meats to put before him--cold shoulder of mutton, a bird, and pickles, cold pie and so on. True, he replied, cold meat is never or rarely eaten by man on the plains. People do have cold meat in the house, but that as a rule is where there are children, for when a child is hungry, and cries for food, his mother gives him a bone of cold meat, just as in other countries where bread is common you give a child a piece of bread.

However, he would try cold meat for once. It looked to him as if there were other things to eat on the table. "And what is this?" he shouted, pointing dramatically at a dish of large, very green-looking pickled peaches. Peaches--peaches in winter! This is strange indeed!

It was explained to him that they were pickled peaches, and that it was the custom of the house to have them on the table at supper. He tried one with his cold mutton, and was presently assuring my parents that never in his life had he partaken of anything so good--so tasty, so appetizing, and whether or not it was because of the pickled peaches, or some quality in our mutton which made it unlike all other mutton, he had never enjoyed a meal as much. What he wanted to know was how the thing was done. He was told that large, sound fruit, just ripening, must be selected for pickling; when the finger dents a peach it is too ripe. The selected peaches are washed and dried and put into a cask, then boiling vinegar, with a handful of cloves is poured in till it covers the fruit, the cask closed and left for a couple of months, by which time the fruit would be properly pickled. Two or three casks-full were prepared in this way each season and served us for the entire year.

It was a revelation, he said, and lamented that he and his people had not this secret before. He, too, had a peach orchard, and when the fruit ripened his family, assisted by all their neighbours, feasted from morning till night on peaches, and hardly left room in their stomachs for roast meat when it was dinner-time. The consequence was that in a very few weeks--he could almost say days--the fruit was all gone, and they had to say, "No more peaches for another twelve months!" All that would now be changed. He would command his wife and daughters to pickle peaches--a cask-full, or two or three if one would not be enough. He would provide vinegar--many gallons of it, and cloves by the handful. And when they had got their pickled peaches he would have cold mutton for supper every day all the year round, and enjoy his life as he had never done before!

This amused us very much, as we knew that poor Don Ventura, notwithstanding his loud commanding voice, had little or no authority in his house; that it was ruled by his wife, assisted by a council of four marriageable daughters, whose present objects in life were little dances and other amusements, and lovers with courage enough to marry them or carry them off.