Preamble — The house where I was born — The singular Ombu tree — A tree without a name — The plain — The ghost of a murdered slave — Our playmate, the old sheep-dog — A first riding-lesson — The cattle: an evening scene — My mother — Captain Scott — The hermit and his awful penance.
It was never my intention to write an autobiography. Since I took to writing in my middle years I have, from time to time, related some incident of my boyhood, and these are contained in various chapters in The Naturalist in La Plata, Birds and Man, Adventures among Birds, and other works, also in two or three magazine articles: all this material would have been kept back if I had contemplated such a book as this. When my friends have asked me in recent years why I did not write a history of my early life on the pampas, my answer was that I had already told all that was worth telling in these books. And I really believed it was so; for when a person endeavours to recall his early life in its entirety he finds it is not possible: he is like one who ascends a hill to survey the prospect before him on a day of heavy cloud and shadow, who sees at a distance, now here, now there, some feature in the landscape — hill or wood or tower or spire — touched and made conspicuous by a transitory sunbeam while all else remains in obscurity. The scenes, people, events we are able by an effort to call up do not present themselves in order; there is no order, no sequence or regular progression — nothing, in fact, but isolated spots or patches, brightly illumined and vividly seen, in the midst of a wide shrouded mental landscape.
It is easy to fall into the delusion that the few things thus distinctly remembered and visualized are precisely those which were most important in our life, and on that account were saved by memory while all the rest has been permanently blotted out. That is indeed how our memory serves and fools us; for at some period of a man’s life — at all events of some lives — in some rare state of the mind, it is all at once revealed to him as by a miracle that nothing is ever blotted out.
It was through falling into some such state as that, during which I had a wonderfully clear and continuous vision of the past, that I was tempted — forced I may say — to write this account of my early years. I will relate the occasion, as I imagine that the reader who is a psychologist will find as much to interest him in this incident as in anything else contained in the book.
I was feeling weak and depressed when I came down from London one November evening to the south coast: the sea, the clear sky, the bright colours of the afterglow kept me too long on the front in an east wind in that low condition, with the result that I was laid up for six weeks with a very serious illness. Yet when it was over I looked back on those six weeks as a happy time! Never had I thought so little of physical pain. Never had I felt confinement less — I who feel, when I am out of sight of living, growing grass, and out of sound of birds’ voices and all rural sounds, that I am not properly alive!
On the second day of my illness, during an interval of comparative ease, I fell into recollections of my childhood, and at once I had that far, that forgotten past with me again as I had never previously had it. It was not like that mental condition, known to most persons, when some sight or sound or, more frequently, the perfume of some flower, associated with our early life, restores the past suddenly and so vividly that it is almost an illusion. That is an intensely emotional condition and vanishes as quickly as it comes. This was different. To return to the simile and metaphor used at the beginning, it was as if the cloud shadows and haze had passed away and the entire wide prospect beneath me made clearly visible. Over it all my eyes could range at will, choosing this or that point to dwell on, to examine it in all its details; and, in the case of some person known to me as a child, to follow his life till it ended or passed from sight; then to return to the same point again to repeat the process with other lives and resume my rambles in the old familiar haunts.
What a happiness it would be, I thought, in spite of discomfort and pain and danger, if this vision would continue! It was not to be expected; nevertheless it did not vanish, and on the second day I set myself to try and save it from the oblivion which would presently cover it again. Propped up with pillows I began with pencil and writing-pad to put it down in some sort of order, and went on with it at intervals during the whole six weeks of my confinement, and in this way produced the first rough draft of the book.
And all this time I never ceased wondering at my own mental state; I thought of it when, quickly tired, my trembling fingers dropped the pencil; or when I woke from uneasy sleep to find the vision still before me, inviting, insistently calling to me, to resume my childish rambles and adventures of long ago in that strange world where I first saw the light.
It was to me a marvellous experience; to be here, propped up with pillows in a dimly-lighted room, the night-nurse idly dosing by the fire; the sound of the everlasting wind in my ears, howling outside and dashing the rain like hailstones against the window-panes; to be awake to all this, feverish and ill and sore, conscious of my danger too, and at the same time to be thousands of miles away, out in the sun and wind, rejoicing in other sights and sounds, happy again with that ancient long-lost and now recovered happiness!
During the three years that have passed since I had that strange experience, I have from time to time, when in the mood, gone back to the book and have had to cut it down a good deal and to reshape it, as in the first draft it would have made too long and formless a history.
The house where I was born, on the South American pampas, was quaintly named Los Veinte-cinco Ombues, which means “The Twenty-five Ombu Trees,” there being just twenty-five of these indigenous trees — gigantic in size, and standing wide apart in a row about 400 yards long. The ombu is a very singular tree indeed, and being the only representative of tree-vegetation, natural to the soil, on those great level plains, and having also many curious superstitions connected with it, it is a romance in itself. It belongs to the rare Phytolacca family, and has an immense girth — forty or fifty feet in some cases; at the same time the wood is so soft and spongy that it can be cut into with a knife, and is utterly unfit for firewood, for when cut up it refuses to dry, but simply rots away like a ripe water-melon. It also grows slowly, and its leaves, which are large, glossy and deep green, like laurel leaves, are poisonous; and because of its uselessness it will probably become extinct, like the graceful pampas grass in the same region. In this exceedingly practical age men quickly lay the axe at the root of things which, in their view, only cumber the ground; but before other trees had been planted the antiquated and grand-looking ombu had its uses; it served as a gigantic landmark to the traveller on the great monotonous plains, and also afforded refreshing shade to man and horse in summer; while the native doctor or herbalist would sometimes pluck a leaf for a patient requiring a very violent remedy for his disorder. Our trees were about a century old and very large, and, as they stood on an elevation, they could be easily seen at a distance of ten miles. At noon in summer the cattle and sheep, of which we had a large number, used to rest in their shade; one large tree also afforded us children a splendid play-house, and we used to carry up a number of planks to construct safe bridges from branch to branch, and at noon, when our elders were sleeping their siesta, we would have our arboreal games unmolested.
Besides the famous twenty-five, there was one other tree of a different species, growing close to the house, and this was known all over the neighbourhood as “The Tree,” this proud name having been bestowed on it because it was the only one of the kind known in that part of the country; our native neighbours always affirmed that it was the only one in the world. It was a fine large old tree, with a white bark, long smooth white thorns, and dark-green undeciduous foliage. Its blossoming time was in November — a month about as hot as an English July — and it would then become covered with tassels of minute wax-like flowers, pale straw-colour, and of a wonderful fragrance, which the soft summer wind would carry for miles on its wings. And in this way our neighbours would discover that the flowering season had come to the tree they so much admired, and they would come to beg for a branch to take home with them to perfume their lowly houses.
The pampas are, in most places, level as a billiard-table; just where we lived, however, the country happened to be undulating, and our house stood on the summit of one of the highest elevations. Before the house stretched a great grassy plain, level to the horizon, while at the back it sloped abruptly down to a broad, deep stream, which emptied itself in the river Plata, about six miles to the east. This stream, with its three ancient red willow-trees growing on the banks, was a source of endless pleasure to us. Whenever we went down to play on the banks, the fresh penetrating scent of the moist earth had a strangely exhilarating effect, making us wild with joy. I am able now to recall these sensations, and believe that the sense of smell, which seems to diminish as we grow older, until it becomes something scarcely worthy of being called a sense, is nearly as keen in little children as in the inferior animals, and, when they live with nature, contributes as much to their pleasure as sight or hearing. I have often observed that small children, when brought on to low, moist ground from a high level, give loose to a sudden spontaneous gladness, running, shouting, and rolling over the grass just like dogs, and I have no doubt that the fresh smell of the earth is the cause of their joyous excitement.
Our house was a long low structure, built of brick, and, being very old, naturally had the reputation of being haunted. A former proprietor, half a century before I was born, once had among his slaves a very handsome young negro, who, on account of his beauty and amiability, was a special favourite with his mistress. Her preference filled his poor silly brains with dreams and aspirations, and, deceived by her gracious manner, he one day ventured to approach her in the absence of his master and told her his feelings. She could not forgive so terrible an insult to her pride, and when her husband returned went to him, white with indignation, and told him how this miserable slave had abused their kindness. The husband had an implacable heart, and at his command the offender was suspended by the wrists to a low, horizontal branch of “The Tree,” and there, in sight of his master and mistress, he was scourged to death by his fellow-slaves. His battered body was then taken down and buried in a deep hollow at some little distance from the last of the long row of ombu trees. It was the ghost of this poor black, whose punishment had been so much heavier than his offence deserved, that was supposed to haunt the place. It was not, however, a conventional ghost, stalking about in a white sheet; those who had seen it averred that it invariably rose up from the spot where the body had been buried, like a pale, luminous exhalation from the earth, and, assuming a human shape, floated slowly towards the house, and roamed about the great trees, or, seating itself on an old projecting root, would remain motionless for hours in a dejected attitude. I never saw it.
Our constant companion and playmate in those days was a dog, whose portrait has never faded from remembrance, for he was a dog with features and a personality which impressed themselves deeply on the mind. He came to us in a rather mysterious manner. One summer evening the shepherd was galloping round the flock, and trying by means of much shouting to induce the lazy sheep to move homewards. A strange-looking lame dog suddenly appeared on the scene, as if it had dropped from the clouds, and limping briskly after the astonished and frightened sheep, drove them straight home and into the fold; and, after thus earning his supper and showing what stuff was in him, he established himself at the house, where he was well received. He was a good-sized animal, with a very long body, a smooth black coat, tan feet, muzzle, and “spectacles,” and a face of extraordinary length, which gave him a profoundly-wise baboon-like expression. One of his hind legs had been broken or otherwise injured, so that he limped and shuffled along in a peculiar lopsided fashion; he had no tail, and his ears had been cropped close to his head: altogether he was like an old soldier returned from the wars, where he had received many hard knocks, besides having had sundry portions of his anatomy shot away.
No name to fit this singular canine visitor could be found, although he responded readily enough to the word Pechicho, which is used to call any unnamed pup by, like pussy for a cat. So it came to pass that this word pechicho — equivalent to “doggie” in English — stuck to him for only name until the end of the chapter; and the end was that, after spending some years with us, he mysteriously disappeared.
He very soon proved to us that he understood children as well as sheep; at all events he would allow them to tease and pull him about most unmercifully, and actually appeared to enjoy it. Our first riding-lessons were taken on his back; but old Pechicho eventually made one mistake, after which he was relieved from the labour of carrying us. When I was about four years old, my two elder brothers, in the character of riding-masters, set me on his back, and, in order to test my capacity for sticking on under difficulties, they rushed away, calling him. The old dog, infected with the pretended excitement, bounded after them, and I was thrown and had my leg broken, for, as the poet says —
Children, they are very little,
And their bones are very brittle.
Luckily their little brittle bones quickly solder, and it did not take me long to recover from the effects of this mishap.
No doubt my canine steed was as much troubled as any one at the accident. I seem to see the wise old fellow now, sitting in that curious one-sided fashion he had acquired so as to rest his lame leg, his mouth opened to a kind of immense smile, and his brown benevolent eyes regarding us with just such an expression as one sees in a faithful old negress nursing a flock of troublesome white children — so proud and happy to be in charge of the little ones of a superior race!
All that I remember of my early life at this place comes between the ages of three or four and five; a period which, to the eye of memory, appears like a wide plain blurred over with a low-lying mist, with here and there a group of trees, a house, a hill, or other large object, standing out in the clear air with marvellous distinctness. The picture that most often presents itself is of the cattle coming home in the evening; the green quiet plain extending away from the gate to the horizon; the western sky flushed with sunset hues, and the herd of four or five hundred cattle trotting homewards with loud lowings and bellowings, raising a great cloud of dust with their hoofs, while behind gallop the herdsmen urging them on with wild cries. Another picture is of my mother at the close of the day, when we children, after our supper of bread and milk, join in a last grand frolic on the green before the house. I see her sitting out of doors watching our sport with a smile, her book lying in her lap, and the last rays of the setting sun shining on her face.
When I think of her I remember with gratitude that our parents seldom or never punished us, and never, unless we went too far in our domestic dissensions or tricks, even chided us. This, I am convinced, is the right attitude for parents to observe, modestly to admit that nature is wiser than they are, and to let their little ones follow, as far as possible, the bent of their own minds, or whatever it is they have in place of minds. It is the attitude of the sensible hen towards her ducklings, when she has had frequent experience of their incongruous ways, and is satisfied that they know best what is good for them; though, of course, their ways seem peculiar to her, and she can never entirely sympathize with their fancy for going into water. I need not be told that the hen is after all only step-mother to her ducklings, since I am contending that the civilized woman — the artificial product of our self-imposed conditions — cannot have the same relation to her offspring as the uncivilized woman really has to hers. The comparison, therefore, holds good, the mother with us being practically step-mother to children of another race; and if she is sensible, and amenable to nature’s teaching, she will attribute their seemingly unsuitable ways and appetites to the right cause, and not to a hypothetical perversity or inherent depravity of heart, about which many authors will have spoken to her in many books:
But though they wrote it all by rote
They did not write it right.
Of all the people outside of the domestic circle known to me in those days, two individuals only are distinctly remembered. They were certainly painted by memory in very strong unfading colours, so that now they seem to stand like living men in a company of pale phantom forms. This is probably due to the circumstance that they were considerably more grotesque in appearance than the others, like old Pechicho among our dogs — all now forgotten save him.
One was an Englishman named Captain Scott, who used to visit us occasionally for a week’s shooting or fishing, for he was a great sportsman. We were all extremely fond of him, for he was one of those simple men that love and sympathize with children; besides that, he used to come to us from some distant wonderful place where sugar-plums were made, and to our healthy appetites, unaccustomed to sweets of any description, these things tasted like an angelic kind of food. He was an immense man, with a great round face of a purplish-red colour, like the sun setting in glory, and surrounded with a fringe of silvery-white hair and whiskers, standing out like the petals round the disc of a sunflower. It was always a great time when Captain Scott arrived, and while he alighted from his horse we would surround him with loud demonstrations of welcome, eager for the treasures which made his pockets bulge out on all sides. When he went out gunning he always remembered to shoot a hawk or some strangely-painted bird for us; it was even better when he went fishing, for then he took us with him, and while he stood motionless on the bank, rod in hand, looking, in the light-blue suit he always wore, like a vast blue pillar crowned with that broad red face, we romped on the sward, and revelled in the dank fragrance of the earth and rushes.
I have not the faintest notion of who Captain Scott was, or of what he was ever captain, or whether residence in a warm climate or hard drinking had dyed his broad countenance with that deep magenta red, nor of how and when he finished his earthly career; for when we moved away the huge purple-faced strange-looking man dropped for ever out of our lives; yet in my mind how beautiful his gigantic image looks! And to this day I bless his memory for all the sweets he gave me, in a land where sweets were scarce, and for his friendliness to me when I was a very small boy.
The second well-remembered individual was also only an occasional visitor at our house, and was known all over the surrounding country as the Hermit, for his name was never discovered. He was perpetually on the move, visiting in turn every house within a radius of forty or fifty miles; and once about every seven or eight weeks he called on us to receive a few articles of food — enough for the day’s consumption. Money he always refused with gestures of intense disgust, and he would also decline cooked meat and broken bread. When hard biscuits were given him, he would carefully examine them, and if one was found chipped or cracked he would return it, pointing out the defect, and ask for a sound one in return. He had a small, sun-parched face, and silvery long hair; but his features were fine, his teeth white and even, his eyes clear grey and keen as a falcon’s. There was always a set expression of deep mental anguish on his face, intensified with perhaps a touch of insanity, which made it painful to look at him. As he never accepted money or anything but food, he of course made his own garments — and what garments they were! Many years ago I used to see, strolling about St. James’s Park, a huge hairy gentleman, with a bludgeon in his hand, and clothed with a bear’s skin to which the head and paws were attached. It may be that this eccentric individual is remembered by some of my readers, but I assure them that he was quite a St. James’s Park dandy compared with my hermit. He wore a pair of gigantic shoes, about a foot broad at the toes, made out of thick cow-hide with the hair on; and on his head was a tall rimless cow-hide hat shaped like an inverted flower-pot. His bodily covering was, however, the most extraordinary: the outer garment, if garment it can be called, resembled a very large mattress in size and shape, with the ticking made of innumerable pieces of raw hide sewn together. It was about a foot in thickness and stuffed with sticks, stones, hard lumps of clay, rams’ horns, bleached bones, and other hard heavy objects; it was fastened round him with straps of hide, and reached nearly to the ground. The figure he made in this covering was most horribly uncouth and grotesque, and his periodical visits used to throw us into a great state of excitement. And as if this awful burden with which he had saddled himself — enough to have crushed down any two ordinary men — was not sufficient, he had weighted the heavy stick used to support his steps with a great ball at the end, also with a large circular bell-shaped object surrounding the middle. On arriving at the house, where the dogs would become frantic with terror and rage at sight of him, he would stand resting himself for eight or ten minutes; then in a strange language, which might have been Hebrew or Sanscrit, for there was no person learned enough in the country to understand it, he would make a long speech or prayer in a clear ringing voice, intoning his words in a monotonous sing-song. His speech done, he would beg, in broken Spanish, for the usual charity; and, after receiving it, he would commence another address, possibly invoking blessings of all kinds on the donor, and lasting an unconscionable time. Then, bidding a ceremonious farewell, he would take his departure.
From the sound of certain oft-recurring expressions in his recitations we children called him “Con-stair Lo-vair”; perhaps some clever pundit will be able to tell me what these words mean — the only fragment saved of the hermit’s mysterious language. It was commonly reported that he had at one period of his life committed some terrible crime, and that, pursued by the phantoms of remorse, he had fled to this distant region, where he would never be met and denounced by any former companion, and had adopted his singular mode of life by way of penance. This was, of course, mere conjecture, for nothing could be extracted from him. When closely questioned or otherwise interfered with, then old Con-stair Lo-vair would show that his long cruel penance had not yet banished the devil from his heart. A terrible wrath would disfigure his countenance and kindle his eyes with demoniac fire; and in sharp ringing tones, that wounded like strokes, he would pour forth a torrent of words in his unknown language, doubtless invoking every imaginable curse on his tormentor.
For upwards of twenty years after I as a small child made his acquaintance he continued faithfully pursuing his dreary rounds, exposed to cold and rain in winter and to the more trying heats of summer; until at last he was discovered lying dead on the plain, wasted by old age and famine to a mere skeleton, and even in death still crushed down with that awful burden he had carried for so many years. Thus, consistent to the end, and with his secret untold to any sympathetic human soul, perished poor old Con-stair Lo-vair, the strangest of all strange beings I have met with in my journey through life.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55