Far Away and Long Ago, by William Henry Hudson

Chapter 22

Boyhood’s End

The book — The Saledero, or killing-grounds, and their smell — Walls built of bullocks’ skulls — A pestilential city — River water and Aljibe water — Days of lassitude — Novel scenes — Home again — Typhus — My first day out — Birthday reflections — What I asked of life — A boy’s mind — A brother’s resolution — End of our thousand and one nights — A reading spell — My boyhood ends in disaster.

This book has already run to a greater length than was intended; nevertheless there must be yet another chapter or two to bring it to a proper ending, which I can only find by skipping over three years of my life, and so getting at once to the age of fifteen. For that was a time of great events and serious changes, bodily and mental, which practically brought the happy time of my boyhood to an end.

On looking back over the book, I find that on three or four occasions I have placed some incident in the wrong chapter or group, thus making it take place a year or so too soon or too late. These small errors of memory are, however, not worth altering now: so long as the scene or event is rightly remembered and pictured it doesn’t matter much whether I was six or seven, or eight years old at the time. I find, too, that I have omitted many things which perhaps deserved a place in the book — scenes and events which are vividly remembered, but which unfortunately did not come up at the right moment, and so were left out.

Of these scenes unconsciously omitted, I will now give one which should have appeared in the chapter describing my first visit to Buenos Ayres city: placed here it will serve very well as an introduction to this last chapter.

In those days, and indeed down to the seventies of last century, the south side of the capital was the site of the famous Saladero, or killing-grounds, where the fat cattle, horses and sheep brought in from all over the country were slaughtered every day, some to supply the town with beef and mutton and to make charque, or sun-dried beef, for exportation to Brazil, where it was used to feed the slaves, but the greater number of the animals, including all the horses, were killed solely for their hides and tallow. The grounds covered a space of three or four square miles, where there were cattle enclosures made of upright posts placed close together, and some low buildings scattered about To this spot were driven endless flocks of sheep, half or wholly wild horses and dangerous-looking, long-horned cattle in herds of a hundred or so to a thousand, each moving in its cloud of dust, with noise of bellowings and bleatings and furious shouting of the drovers as they galloped up and down, urging the doomed animals on. When the beasts arrived in too great numbers to be dealt with in the buildings, you could see hundreds of cattle being killed in the open all over the grounds in the old barbarous way the gauchos use, every animal being first lassoed, then hamstrung, then its throat cut — a hideous and horrible spectacle, with a suitable accompaniment of sounds in the wild shouts of the slaughterers and the awful bellowings of the tortured beasts. Just where the animal was knocked down and killed, it was stripped of its hide and the carcass cut up, a portion of the flesh and the fat being removed and all the rest left on the ground to be devoured by the pariah dogs, the carrion hawks, and a multitude of screaming black-headed gulls always in attendance. The blood so abundantly shed from day to day, mixing with the dust, had formed a crust half a foot thick all over the open space: let the reader try to imagine the smell of this crust and of tons of offal and flesh and bones lying everywhere in heaps. But no, it cannot be imagined. The most dreadful scenes, the worst in Dante’s Inferno, for example, can be visualized by the inner eye; and sounds, too, are conveyed to us in a description so that they can be heard mentally; but it is not so with smells. The reader can only take my word for it that this smell was probably the worst ever known on the earth, unless he accepts as true the story of Tobit and the “fishy fumes” by means of which that ancient hero defended himself in his retreat from the pursuing devil.

It was the smell of carrion, of putrifying flesh, and of that old and ever-newly moistened crust of dust and coagulated blood. It was, or seemed, a curiously substantial and stationary smell; travellers approaching or leaving the capital by the great south road, which skirted the killing-grounds, would hold their noses and ride a mile or so at a furious gallop until they got out of the abominable stench.

One extraordinary feature of the private quintas or orchards and plantations in the vicinity of the Saladeros was the walls or hedges. These were built entirely of cows’ skulls, seven, eight, or nine deep, placed evenly like stones, the horns projecting. Hundreds of thousands of skulls had been thus used, and some of the old, very long walls, crowned with green grass and with creepers and wild flowers growing from the cavities in the bones, had a strangely picturesque but somewhat uncanny appearance. As a rule there were rows of old Lombardy poplars behind these strange walls or fences.

In those days bones were not utilized: they were thrown away, and those who wanted walls in a stoneless land, where bricks and wood for palings were dear to buy, found in the skulls a useful substitute.

The abomination I have described was but one of many — the principal and sublime stench in a city of evil smells, a populous city built on a plain without drainage and without water-supply beyond that which was sold by watermen in buckets, each bucketful containing about half a pound of red clay in solution. It is true that the best houses had algibes, or cisterns, under the courtyard, where the rainwater from the flat roofs was deposited. I remember that water well: you always had one or two to half-a-dozen scarlet wrigglers, the larvae of mosquitoes, in a tumblerful, and you drank your water, quite calmly, wrigglers and all!

All this will serve to give an idea of the condition of the city of that time from the sanitary point of view, and this state of things lasted down to the ‘seventies of the last century, when Buenos Ayres came to be the chief pestilential city of the globe and was obliged to call in engineers from England to do something to save the inhabitants from extinction.

When I was in my fifteenth year, before any changes had taken place and the great outbreaks of cholera and yellow fever were yet to come, I spent four or five weeks in the city, greatly enjoying the novel scenes and new life. After about ten or twelve days I began to feel tired and languid, and this feeling grew on me day by day until it became almost painful to exert myself to visit even my most favoured haunts — the great South Market, where cage-birds were to be seen in hundreds, green paroquets, cardinals, and bishop-birds predominating; or to the river front, where I spent much time fishing for little silvery king-fishes from the rocks; or further away to the quintas and gardens on the cliff, where I first feasted my eyes on the sight of orange groves laden with golden fruit amidst the vivid green polished foliage, and old olive trees with black egg-shaped fruit showing among the grey leaves.

And through it all the feeling of lassitude continued, and was, I thought, due to the fact that I was on foot instead of on horseback, and walking on a stony pavement instead of on a green turf. It never occurred to me that there might be another cause, that I was breathing in a pestilential atmosphere and that the poison was working in me.

Leaving town I travelled by some conveyance to spend a night at a friend’s house, and next morning set out for home on horseback. I had about twenty-seven miles across country to ride and never touched a road, and I was no sooner on my way than my spirits revived; I was well and unspeakably happy again, on horseback on the wide green plain, drinking in the pure air like a draught of eternal life. It was autumn, and the plain as far as one could see on every side a moist brilliant green, with a crystal blue sky above, over which floated shining white clouds. The healthy glad feeling lasted through my ride and for a day or two after, during which I revisited my favourite haunts in the grounds, rejoicing to be with my beloved birds and trees once more.

Then the hateful town feeling of lassitude returned on me and all my vigour was gone, all pleasure in life ended. Thereafter for a fortnight I spent the time moping about the house; then there was a spell of frosty weather with a bleak cutting wind to tell us that it was winter, which even in those latitudes can be very cold. One day after early dinner my mother and sisters went in the carriage to pay a visit to a neighbouring estancia, and my brothers being out or absent from home I was left alone. The verandah appeared to me the warmest place I could find, as the sun shone on it warm and bright, and there I settled down on a chair placed against the wall at the side of a heap of sacks of meal or something which had been left there, and formed a nice shelter from the wind.

The house was strangely quiet, and the westering sun shining full on me made me feel quite comfortable, and in a little while I fell asleep. The sun set and it grew bitterly cold, but I did not wake, and when my mother returned and inquired for me I could not be found. Finally the whole household turned out with lanterns and searched for me up and down through the plantation, and the hunt was still going on when, about ten o’clock at night, some one hurrying along the verandah stumbled on me in my sheltered corner by the sacks, still in my chair but unconscious and in a burning fever. It was the dread typhus, an almost obsolete malady in Europe, and in fact in all civilized countries, but not uncommon at that date in the pestilential city. It was wonderful that I lived through it in a place where we were out of reach of doctors and apothecaries, with only my mother’s skill in nursing and her knowledge of such drugs as were kept in the house to save me. She nursed me day and night for the three weeks during which the fever lasted, and when it left me, a mere shadow of my former self, I was dumb-not even a little Yes or No could I articulate however hard I tried, and it was at last concluded that I would never speak again. However, after about a fortnight, the lost faculty came back, to my mother’s inexpressible joy.

Winter was nearing its end when one morning in late July I ventured out of doors for the first time, though still but a skeleton, a shadow of my former self. It was a windy day of brilliant sunshine, a day I shall never forget, and the effect of the air and the sun and smell of earth and early flowers, and the sounds of wild birds, with the sight of the intensely green young grass and the vast crystal dome of heaven above, was like deep draughts of some potent liquor that made the blood dance in my veins. Oh what an inexpressible, immeasurable joy to be alive and not dead, to have my feet still on the earth, and drink in the wind and sunshine once more! But the pleasure was more than I could endure in that feeble state; the chilly wind pierced me like needles of ice, my senses swam, and I would have fallen to the ground if my elder brother had not caught me in his arms and taken me back to the house.

In spite of that fainting fit I was happy again with the old happiness, and from day to day I regained strength, until one day in early August I was suddenly reminded that it was my anniversary by my brothers and sisters all coming to me with birthday presents, which they had been careful to provide beforehand, and congratulations on my recovery.

Fifteen years old! This was indeed the most memorable day of my life, for on that evening I began to think about myself, and my thoughts were strange and unhappy thoughts to me-what I was, what I was in the world for, what I wanted, what destiny was going to make of me! Or was it for me to do just what I wished, to shape my own destiny, as my elder brothers had done? It was the first time such questions had come to me, and I was startled at them. It was as though I had only just become conscious; I doubt that I had ever been fully conscious before. I had lived till now in a paradise of vivid sense-impressions in which all thoughts came to me saturated with emotion, and in that mental state reflection is well-nigh impossible. Even the idea of death, which had come as a surprise, had not made me reflect. Death was a person, a monstrous being who had sprung upon me in my flowery paradise and had inflicted a wound with a poisoned dagger in my flesh. Then had come the knowledge of immortality for the soul, and the wound was healed, or partly so, for a time at all events; after which the one thought that seriously troubled me was that I could not always remain a boy. To pass from boyhood to manhood was not so bad as dying; nevertheless it was a change painful to contemplate. That everlasting delight and wonder, rising to rapture, which was in the child and boy would wither away and vanish, and in its place there would be that dull low kind of satisfaction which men have in the set task, the daily and hourly intercourse with others of a like condition, and in eating and drinking and sleeping. I could not, for example, think of so advanced an age as fifteen without the keenest apprehension. And now I was actually at that age-at that parting of the ways, as it seemed to me.

What, then, did I want?-what did I ask to have? If the question had been put to me then, and if I had been capable of expressing what was in me, I should have replied: I want only to keep what I have; to rise each morning and look out on the sky and the grassy dew-wet earth from day to day, from year to year. To watch every June and July for spring, to feel the same old sweet surprise and delight at the appearance of each familiar flower, every new-born insect, every bird returned once more from the north. To listen in a trance of delight to the wild notes of the golden plover coming once more to the great plain, flying, flying south, flock succeeding flock the whole day long. Oh, those wild beautiful cries of the golden plover! I could exclaim with Hafiz, with but one word changed: “If after a thousand years that sound should float o’er my tomb, my bones uprising in their gladness would dance in the sepulchre!” To climb trees and put my hand down in the deep hot nest of the Biente-veo and feel the hot eggs — the five long pointed cream-coloured eggs with chocolate spots and splashes at the larger end. To lie on a grassy bank with the blue water between me and beds of tall bulrushes, listening to the mysterious sounds of the wind and of hidden rails and coots and courlans conversing together in strange human-like tones; to let my sight dwell and feast on the camalote flower amid its floating masses of moist vivid green leaves — the large alamanda-like flower of a purest divine yellow that when plucked sheds its lovely petals, to leave you with nothing but a green stem in your hand. To ride at noon on the hottest days, when the whole earth is a-glitter with illusory water, and see the cattle and horses in thousands, covering the plain at their watering-places; to visit some haunt of large birds at that still, hot hour and see storks, ibises, grey herons, egrets of a dazzling whiteness, and rose-coloured spoonbills and flamingoes, standing in the shallow water in which their motionless forms are reflected. To lie on my back on the rust-brown grass in January and gaze up at the wide hot whitey-blue sky, peopled with millions and myriads of glistening balls of thistle-down, ever, ever floating by; to gaze and gaze until they are to me living things and I, in an ecstasy, am with them, floating in that immense shining void!

And now it seemed that I was about to lose it — this glad emotion which had made the world what it was to me, an enchanted realm, a nature at once natural and supernatural; it would fade and lessen imperceptibly day by day, year by year, as I became more and more absorbed in the dull business of life, until it would be lost as effectually as if I had ceased to see and hear and palpitate, and my warm body had grown cold and stiff in death, and, like the dead and the living, I should be unconscious of my loss.

It was not a unique nor a singular feeling: it is known to other boys, as I have read and heard; also I have occasionally met with one who, in a rare moment of confidence, has confessed that he has been troubled at times at the thought of all he would lose. But I doubt that it was ever more keenly felt than in my case; I doubt, too, that it is common or strong in English boys, considering the conditions in which they exist. For restraint is irksome to all beings, from a black-beetle or an earthworm to an eagle, or, to go higher still in the scale, to an orang-u-tan or a man; it is felt most keenly by the young, in our species at all events, and the British boy suffers the greatest restraint during the period when the call of nature, the instincts of play and adventure, are most urgent. Naturally, he looks eagerly forward to the time of escape, which he fondly imagines will be when his boyhood is over and he is free of masters.

To come back to my own case: I did not and could not know that it was an exceptional case, that my feeling for nature was something more than the sense of pleasure in sun and rain and wind and earth and water and in liberty of motion, which is universal in children, but was in part due to a faculty which is not universal or common. The fear, then, was an idle one, but I had good reason for it when I considered how it had been with my elder brothers, who had been as little restrained as myself, especially that masterful adventurous one, now in a distant country thousands of miles from home, who, at about the age at which I had now arrived, had made himself his own master, to do what he liked with his own life. I had seen him at his parting of the ways, how resolutely he had abandoned his open-air habits, everything in fact that had been his delight, to settle down to sheer hard mental work, and this at our home on the pampas where there were no masters, and even the books and instruments required for his studies could only be procured with great difficulty and after long delays. I remember one afternoon when we were gathered in the dining-room for tea, he was reading, and my mother coming in looked over his shoulder and said, “You are reading a novel: don’t you think all that romantic stuff will take your mind off your studies?”

Now he’ll flare up, said I to myself; he’s so confoundedly independent and touchy no one can say a word to him. It surprised me when he answered quietly, “Yes, mother, I know, but I must finish this book now; it will be the last novel I shall read for some years.” And so it was, I believe.

His resolution impressed us even more in another matter. He had an extraordinary talent for inventing stories, mostly of wars and wild adventures with plenty of fighting in them, and whenever we boys were all together, which was usually after we had gone to bed and put the candle out, he would begin one of his wonderful tales and go on for hours, we all wide awake, listening in breathless silence. At length towards midnight the flow of the narrative would suddenly stop, and after an interval we would all begin to cry out to him to go on. “Oh, you are awake!” he would exclaim, with a chuckle of laughter. “Very well, then, you know just where we are in our history, to be resumed another day. Now you can go to sleep.” On the following evening he would take up the tale, which would often last an entire week, to be followed by another just as long, then another, and so on-our thousand and one nights. And this delightful yarn-spinning was also dropped as he became more and more absorbed in his mathematical and other studies.

To this day I can recall portions of those tales, especially those in which birds and beasts instead of men were the actors, and so much did we miss them that sometimes when we were all assembled of an afternoon we would start begging him for a story —— “just one more, and the longer the better,” we would say to tempt him. And he, a little flattered at our keen appreciation of his talent as a yarn-spinner, would appear inclined to yield. “Well, now, what story shall I tell you?” he would say; and then, just when we were settling down to listen, he would shout, “No, no, no more stories,” and to put the matter from him he would snatch up a book and order us to hold our tongues or clear out of the room!

It was not for me to follow his lead; I had not the intellect or strength of will for such tasks, and not only on that memorable evening of my anniversary, but for days afterwards I continued in a troubled state of mind, ashamed of my ignorance, my indolence, my disinclination to any kind of mental work-ashamed even to think that my delight in nature and wish for no other thing in life was merely due to the fact that while the others were putting away childish things as they grew up, I alone refused to part with them.

The result of all these deliberations was that I temporized: I would not, I could not, give up the rides and rambles that took up most of my time, but I would try to overcome my disinclination to serious reading. There were plenty of books in the house-it was always a puzzle to me how we came to have so many. I was familiar with their appearance on the shelves-they had been before me since I first opened my eyes —— their shape, size, colour, even their titles, and that was all I knew about them. A general Natural History and two little works by James Ronnie on the habits and faculties of birds was all the literature suited to my wants in the entire collection of three or four hundred volumes. For the rest, I had read a few story-books and novels: but we had no novels; when one came into the house it would be read and lent to our next neighbour five or six miles away, and he in turn would lend to another, twenty miles further on, and so on until it disappeared in space.

I made a beginning with Rollin’s Ancient History in two huge quarto volumes; I fancy it was the large clear type and numerous plates which illustrated it that determined my choice. Rollin, the good old priest, opened a new wonderful world to me, and instead of the tedious task I had feared the reading would prove, it was as delightful as it had formerly been to listen to my brother’s endless histories of imaginary heroes and their wars and adventures.

Still athirst for history, after finishing Rollin I began fingering other works of that kind: there was Whiston’s Josephus, too ponderous a book to be held in the hands when read out of doors; and there was Gibbon in six stately volumes. I was not yet able to appreciate the lofty artificial style, and soon fell on something better suited to my boyish taste in letters —— a History of Christianity in, I think, sixteen or eighteen volumes of a convenient size. The simple natural diction attracted me, and I was soon convinced that I could not have stumbled on more fascinating reading than the lives of the Fathers of the Church included in some of the earlier volumes, especially that of Augustine, the greatest of all: how beautiful and marvellous his life was, and his mother Monica’s! what wonderful books he wrote!-his Confessions and City of God from which long excerpts were given in this volume.

These biographies sent me to another old book, Leland on Revelation, which told me much I was curious to know about the mythologies and systems of philosophy of the ancients — the innumerable false cults which had flourished in a darkened world before the dawn of the true religion.

Next came Carlyle’s French Revolution and at last Gibbon, and I was still deep in the Decline and Fall when disaster came to us: my father was practically ruined, owing, as I have said in a former chapter, to his childlike trust in his fellow-men, and we quitted the home he had counted as a permanent one, which in due time would have become his property had he but made his position secure by a proper deed on first consenting to take over the place in its then ruinous condition.

Thus ended, sadly enough, the enchanting years of my boyhood; and here, too, the book should finish: but having gone so far, I will venture a little further and give a brief account of what followed and the life which, for several succeeding years, was to be mine — the life, that is to say, of the mind and spirit.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38