La Tapera, a native estancia — Don Gregorio Gandara — His grotesque appearance and strange laugh — Gandara’s wife and her habits and pets — My dislike of hairless dogs — Gandara’s daughters — A pet ostrich — In the peach orchard — Gandara’s herds of piebald brood mares — His masterful temper — His own saddle-horses — Creating a sensation at gaucho gatherings — The younger daughter’s lovers — Her marriage at our house — The priest and the wedding breakfast — Demetria forsaken by her husband.
When, standing by the front gate of our home, we looked out to the north over the level plain and let our eyes rove west from the tall Lombardy poplars of Casa Antigua, they presently rested on another pile or island of trees, blue in the distance, marking the site of another estancia house. This was the estancia called La Tapera, with whose owner we also had friendly relations during all the years we lived in that district. The owner was Don Gregorio Gandara, a native, and like our nearest English neighbour, Mr. Royd, an enthusiast, and was also like him in being the husband of a fat indolent wife who kept parrots and other pet animals, and the father of two daughters. In this case, too, there were no sons. There, however, all resemblance ceased, since two men more unlike in their appearance, character, and fortune it would not be easy to find. Don Gregorio was an extraordinary person to look at; he had a round or barrel-shaped body, short bow legs, and a big round head, which resembled a ball fashioned out of a block of dark-coloured wood with a coarse human face and huge ears rudely carved on it. He had a curly head, the crisp dark hair growing as knobs, which gave his round skull the appearance of being embossed like the head of a curly retriever. The large brown eyes were extremely prominent, with a tremendous staring power in them, and the whole expression was one of toad-like gravity. But he could laugh on occasion, and his laugh to us children was the most grotesque and consequently the most delightful thing about him. Whenever we saw him ride up and dismount, and after fastening his magnificently caparisoned horse to the outer gate come in to make a call on our parents, we children would abandon our sports or whatever we were doing and joyfully run to the house; then distributing ourselves about the room on chairs and stools, sit, silent and meek, listening and watching for Don Gregorio’s laugh. He talked in a startlingly emphatic way, almost making one jump when he assented to what was being said with his loud sudden si-si-si-si-si, and when he spoke bringing out his sentences two or three words at a time, sounding like angry barks. And by and by something would be said to touch his risible faculties, which would send him off in a sort of fit; and throwing himself back in his chair, closing his eyes and opening wide his big mouth he would draw his breath in with a prolonged wailing or sibilant sound until his lungs were too full to hold any more, and it would then be discharged with a rush, accompanied by a sort of wild animal scream, something like the scream of a fox. Then instantly, almost before the scream was over, his countenance would recover its preternatural gravity and intense staring attention.
Our keen delight in this performance made it actually painful since the feeling could not be expressed — since we knew that our father knew that we were only too liable to explode in the presence of an honoured guest, and nothing vexed him more. While in the room we dared not change glances or even smile; but after seeing and hearing the wonderful laugh a few times we would steal off and going to some quiet spot sit in a circle and start imitating it, finding it a very delightful pastime.
After I had learnt to ride I used sometimes to go with my mother and sisters for an afternoon’s visit to La Tapera. The wife was the biggest and fattest woman in our neighbourhood and stood a head and shoulders taller than her barrel-shaped husband. She was not, like Dona Mercedes, a lady by birth, nor an educated person, but resembled her in her habits and tastes. She sat always in a large cane easy-chair, outdoors or in, invariably with four hairless dogs in her company, one on her broad lap, another on a lambskin rug at her feet, and one on rugs at each side. The three on the floor were ever patiently waiting for their respective turns to occupy the broad warm lap when the time came to remove the last-favoured one from that position. I had an invincible dislike to these dogs with their shiny blue-black naked skins, like the bald head of an old negro, and their long white scattered whiskers. These white stiff hairs on their faces and their dim blinking eyes gave them a certain resemblance to very old ugly men with black blood in them, and made them all the more repulsive.
The two daughters, both grown to womanhood, were named Marcelina and Demetria; the first big, brown, jolly, and fat like her mother, the other with better features, a pale olive skin, dark melancholy eyes, and a gentle pensive voice and air which made her seem like one of a different family and race. The daughters would serve mate to us, a beverage which as a small boy I did not like, but there was no chocolate or tea in that house for visitors, and in fruit-time I was always glad to get away to the orchard. As at our own home the old peach trees grew in the middle part of the plantation, the other parts being planted with rows of Lombardy poplars and other large shade trees. A tame ostrich, or rhea, was kept at the house, and as long as we remained indoors or seated in the verandah he would hang about close by, but would follow us as soon as we started off to the orchard. He was like a pet dog and could not endure to be left alone or in the uncongenial company of other domestic creatures — dogs, cats, fowls, turkeys, and geese. He regarded men and women as the only suitable associates for an ostrich, but was not allowed in the rooms on account of his inconvenient habit of swallowing metal objects such as scissors, spoons, thimbles, bodkins, copper coins, and anything of the kind he could snatch up when no one was looking. In the orchard when he saw us eating peaches he would do the same, and if he couldn’t reach high enough to pluck them for himself he would beg of us. It was great fun to give him half a dozen or more at a time, then, when they had been quickly gobbled up, watch their progress as the long row of big round lumps slowly travelled down his neck and disappeared one by one as the peaches passed into his crop.
Gandara’s great business was horse-breeding, and as a rule he kept about a thousand brood mares, so that the herds usually numbered about three thousand head. Strange to say, they were nearly all piebalds. The gaucho, from the poorest worker on horseback to the largest owner of lands and cattle, has, or had in those days, a fancy for having all his riding-horses of one colour. Every man as a rule had his tropilla — his own half a dozen or a dozen or more saddle-horses, and he would have them all as nearly alike as possible, so that one man had chestnuts, another browns, bays, silver — or iron-greys, duns, fawns, cream-noses, or blacks, or whites, or piebalds. On some estancias the cattle, too, were all of one colour, and I remember one estate where the cattle, numbering about six thousand, were all black. Our neighbour’s fancy was for piebald horses, and so strong was it that he wished not to have any one-coloured animals in his herd, despite the fact that he bred horses for sale and that piebalds were not so popular as horses of a more normal colouring. He would have done better if, sticking to one colour, he had bred iron-greys, cream-noses, chestnuts, or fawns or duns — all favourite colours; or better still if he had not confined himself to any one colour. The stallions were all piebalds, but many of the brood mares were white, as he had discovered that he could get as good if not better results from keeping white as well as pie-bald mares. Nobody quarrelled with Gandara on account of his taste in horses; on the contrary, he and his vast parti-coloured herds were greatly admired, but his ambition to have a monopoly in piebalds was sometimes a cause of offence. He sold two-year-old geldings only, but never a mare unless for slaughter, for in those days the half-wild horses of the pampas were annually slaughtered in vast numbers just for the hides and grease. If he found a white or piebald mare in a neighbour’s herd he would not rest until he got possession of it, and by giving double its value in money or horses he seldom found any difficulty in getting what he wanted. But occasionally some poor gaucho with only a few animals would refuse to part with a piebald mare, either out of pride, or “cussedness” as an American would say, or because he was attached to it, and this would stir Gandara’s soul to its deepest depth and bring up all the blackness in him to the surface. “What do you want, then?” he would shout, sitting on his horse and making violent gestures with his right hand and arm, barking out his words. “Have I not offered you enough? Listen! What is a white mare to you — to you, a poor man — more than a mare of any other colour? If your riding-horses must be of one colour, tell me the colour you want. Black or brown or bay or chestnut, or what? Look! you shall have two young unbroken geldings of two years in exchange for the mare. Could you make a better exchange? Were you ever treated more generously? If you refuse it will be out of spite, and I shall know how to treat you. When you lose your animals and are broken, when your children are sick with fever, when your wife is starving, you shall not come to me for a horse to ride on, nor for money, nor meat, nor medicine, since you will have me for an enemy instead of a friend.”
That, they say, was how he raged and bullied when he met with a repulse from a poor neighbour. So fond was Don Gregorio of his piebalds that he spent the greater part of every day on horseback with his different herds of mares, each led by its own proud piebald stallion. He was perpetually waiting and watching with anxious interest for the appearance of a new foal. If it turned out not a piebald he cared nothing more about it, no matter how beautiful in colour it might be or what good points it had: it was to go as soon as he could get rid of it; but if a piebald, he would rejoice, and if there was anything remarkable in its colouring he would keep a sharp eye on it, to find out later perhaps that he liked it too well to part with it. Eventually, when broken, it would go into his private tropilla, and in this way he would always possess three or four times as many saddle-horses as he needed. If you met Gandara every day for a week or two you would see him each time on a different horse, and every one of them would be more or less a surprise to you on account of its colouring.
There was something fantastic in this passion. It reminds one of the famous eighteenth-century miller of Newhaven, described by Mark Antony Lower in his book about the strange customs and quaint characters in the Sussex of the old days. The miller used to pay weekly visits on horseback to his customers in the neighbouring towns and villages, his horse, originally a white one, having first been painted some brilliant colour — blue, green, yellow, orange, purple, or scarlet. The whole village would turn out to look at the miller’s wonderful horse and speculate as to the colour he would exhibit on his next appearance. Gandara’s horses were strangely coloured by nature aided by artificial selection, and I remember that as a boy I thought them very beautiful. Sometimes it was a black — or brown — or bay-and-white, or a chestnut — or silver-grey — or strawberry-red-and-white, but the main point was the pleasing arrangement and shading of the dark colour. Some of his best selected specimens were iron — or blue-grey-and-white; others, finer still, fawn-and-white and dun-and-white, and the best of all, perhaps, white and a metallic tawny yellow, the colour the natives call bronze or brassy, which I never see in England. Horses of this colour have the ears edged and tipped with black, the muzzle, fetlocks, mane, and tail also black. I do not know if he ever succeeded in breeding a tortoiseshell.
Gandara’s pride in the horses he rode himself — the rare blooms selected from his equine garden — showed itself in the way in which he decorated them with silver headstalls and bit and the whole gear sparkling with silver, while he was careless of his own dress, going about in an old rusty hat, unpolished boots, and a frayed old Indian poncho or cloak over his gaucho garments. Probably the most glorious moment of his life was when he rode to a race-meeting or cattle-marking or other gathering of the gaucho population of the district, when all eyes would be turned to him on his arrival. Dismounting, he would hobble his horse, tie the glittering reins to the back of the saddle, and leave him proudly champing his big native bit and tossing his decorated head, while the people gathered round to admire the strangely-coloured animal as if it had been a Pegasus just alighted from the skies to stand for a while exhibiting itself among the horses of the earth.
My latest recollections of La Tapera are concerned more with Demetria than the piebalds. She was not an elegant figure, as was natural in a daughter of the grotesque Don Gregorio, but her countenance, as I have said, was attractive on account of its colour and gentle wistful expression, and being the daughter of a man rich in horses she did not want for lovers. In those far-off days the idle, gay, well-dressed young gambler was always a girl’s first and often most successful wooer, but at La Tapera the young lovers had to reckon with one who, incredible as it seemed in a gaucho, hated gambling and kept a hostile and rather terrifying eye on their approaches. Eventually Demetria became engaged to a young stranger from a distance who had succeeded in persuading the father that he was an eligible person and able to provide for a wife.
Now it happened that the nearest priest in our part of the country lived a long distance away, and to get to him and his little thatched chapel one had to cross a swamp two miles wide in which one’s horse would sink belly-deep in miry holes at least a dozen times before one could get through. In these circumstances the Gandara family could not go to the priest, but managed to persuade him to come to them, and as La Tapera was not considered a good enough place in which to hold so important a ceremony, my parents invited them to have the marriage in our house. The priest arrived on horseback about noon on a sultry day, hot and tired and well splashed with dried mud, and in a rather bad temper. It must also have gone against him to unite these young people in the house of heretics who were doomed to a dreadful future after their rebellious lives had ended. However, he got through with the business, and presently recovered his good temper and grew quite genial and talkative when he was led into the dining-room and found a grand wedding-breakfast with wine in plenty on the table. During the breakfast I looked often and long at the faces of the newly-married pair, and pitied our nice gentle Demetria, and wished she had not given herself to that man. He was not a bad-looking young man and was well-dressed in the gaucho costume, but he was strangely silent and ill at ease the whole time and did not win our regard. I never saw him again. It soon came out that he was a gambler and had nothing but his skill with a pack of cards to live by, and Don Gregorio in a rage told him to go back to his native place. And go he did very soon, leaving poor Demetria on her parents’ hands.
Shortly after this unhappy experience Don Gregorio bought a house in Buenos Ayres for his wife and daughters, so that they could go and spend a month or two when they wanted a change, and I saw them on one or two occasions when in town. He himself would have been out of his element in such a place, shut up in a close room or painfully waddling over the rough boulder-stones of the narrow streets on his bow legs. Life for him was to be on the back of a piebald horse on the wide green plain, looking after his beloved animals.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55