The grand old man of the plains — Don Evaristo Penalva, the Patriarch — My first sight of his estancia house — Don Evaristo described — A husband of six wives — How he was esteemed and loved by every one — On leaving home I lose sight of Don Evaristo — I meet him again after seven years — His failing health — His old first wife and her daughter, Cipriana — The tragedy of Cipriana — Don Evaristo dies and I lose sight of the family.
Patriarchs were fairly common in the land of my nativity: grave, dignified old men with imposing beards, owners of land and cattle and many horses, though many of them could not spell their own names; handsome too, some of them with regular features, descendants of good old Spanish families who colonized the wide pampas in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. I do not think I have got one of this sort in the preceding chapters which treat of our neighbours, unless it be Don Anastacio Buenavida of the corkscrew curls and quaint taste in pigs. Certainly he was of the old landowning class, and in his refined features and delicate little hands and feet gave evidence of good blood, but the marks of degeneration were equally plain; he was an effeminate, futile person, and not properly to be ranked with the patriarchs. His ugly grotesque neighbour of the piebald horses was more like one. I described the people that lived nearest to us, our next-door neighbours so to speak, because I knew them from childhood and followed their fortunes when I grew up, and was thus able to give their complete history. The patriarchs, the grand old gaucho estancieros, I came to know, were scattered all over the land, but, with one exception, I did not know them intimately from childhood, and though I could fill this chapter with their portraits I prefer to give it all to the one I knew best, Don Evaristo Penalva, a very fine patriarch indeed.
I cannot now remember when I first made his acquaintance, but I was not quite six, though very near it, when I had my first view of his house. In the chapter on “Some Early Bird Adventures,” I have described my first long walk on the plains, when two of my brothers took me to a river some distance from home, where I was enchanted with my first sight of that glorious waterfowl, the flamingo. Now, as we stood on the brink of the flowing water, which had a width of about two hundred yards at that spot when the river had overflowed its banks, one of my elder brothers pointed to a long low house, thatched with rushes, about three-quarters of a mile distant on the other side of the stream, and informed me that it was the estancia house of Don Evaristo Penalva, who was one of the principal landowners in that part.
That was one of the images my mind received on that adventurous day which have not faded — the long, low, mud built house, standing on the wide, empty, treeless plain, with three ancient, half-dead, crooked acacia trees growing close to it, and a little further away a corral or cattle-enclosure and a sheep-fold. It was a poor, naked, dreary-looking house without garden or shade, and I dare say a little English boy six years old would have smiled, a little incredulous, to be told that it was the residence of one of the principal land-owners in that part.
Then, as we have seen, I got my horse, and being delivered from the fear of evil-minded cows with long, sharp horns, I spent a good deal of my time on the plain, where I made the acquaintance of other small boys on horseback, who took me to their homes and introduced me to their people. In this way I came to be a visitor to that lonely-looking house on the other side of the river, and to know all the interesting people in it, including Don Evaristo himself, its lord and master. He was a middle-aged man at that date, of medium height, very white-skinned, with long black hair and full beard, straight nose, fine broad forehead, with large dark eyes. He was slow and deliberate in all his movements, grave, dignified, and ceremonious in his manner and speech; but in spite of this lofty air he was known to have a sweet and gentle disposition and was friendly towards every one, even to small boys who are naturally naughty and a nuisance to their elders. And so it came about that even as a very small shy boy, a stranger in the house, I came to know that Don Evaristo was not one to be afraid of.
I hope that the reader, forgetting all he has learnt about the domestic life of the patriarchs of an older time, will not begin to feel disgusted at Don Evaristo when I proceed to say that he was the husband of six wives, all living with him at that same house. The first, the only one he had been permitted to marry in a church, was old as or rather older than himself; she was very dark and was getting wrinkles, and was the mother of several grown-up sons and daughters, some married. The others were of various ages, the youngest two about thirty; and these were twin sisters, both named Ascension, for they were both born on Ascension Day. So much alike were these Ascensions in face and figure that one day, when I was a big boy, I went into the house and finding one of the sisters there began relating something, when she was called out. Presently she came back, as I thought, and I went on with my story just where I had left off, and only when I saw the look of surprise and inquiry on her face did I discover that I was now talking to the other sister.
How was this man with six wives regarded by his neighbours? He was esteemed and beloved above most men in his position. If any person was in trouble or distress, or suffering from a wound or some secret malady, he would go to Don Evaristo for advice and assistance and for such remedies as he knew; and if he was sick unto death he would send for Don Evaristo to come to him to write down his last will and testament. For Don Evaristo knew his letters and had the reputation of a learned man among the gauchos. They considered him better than any one calling himself a doctor. I remember that his cure for shingles, a common and dangerous ailment in that region, was regarded as infallible. The malady took the form of an eruption, like erysipelas, on the middle of the body and extending round the waist till it formed a perfect zone. “If the zone is not complete I can cure the disease,” Don Evaristo would say. He would send some one down to the river to procure a good-sized toad, then causing the patient to strip, he would take pen and ink and write on the skin in the space between the two ends of the inflamed region, in stout letters, the words, In the name of the Father, etc. This done, he would take the toad in his hand and gently rub it on the inflamed part, and the toad, enraged at such treatment, would swell himself up almost to bursting and exude a poisonous milky secretion from his warty skin. That was all, and the man got well!
If it pleased such a man as that to have six wives instead of one it was right and proper for him to have them; no person would presume to say that he was not a good and wise and religious man on that account. It may be added that Don Evaristo, like Henry VIII, who also had six wives, was a strictly virtuous man. The only difference was that when he desired a fresh wife he did not barbarously execute or put away the one, or the others, he already possessed.
I lost sight of Don Evaristo when I was sixteen, having gone to live in another district about thirty miles from my old home. He was then just at the end of the middle period of life, with a few grey hairs beginning to show in his black beard, but he was still a strong man and more children were being added to his numerous family. Some time later I heard that he had acquired a second estate a long day’s journey on horseback from the first, and that some of his wives and children had emigrated to the new esctancia and that he divided his time between the two establishments. But his people were not wholly separated from each other; from time to time some of them would take the long journey to visit the absent ones and there would be an exchange of homes between them. For, incredible as it may seem, they were in spirit, or appeared to be, a united family.
Seven years had passed since I lost sight of them, when it chanced that I was travelling home from the southern frontier, with only two horses to carry me. One gave out, and I was compelled to leave him on the road. I put up that evening at a little wayside pulperia, or public-house, and was hospitably entertained by the landlord, who turned out to be an Englishman. But he had lived so long among the gauchos, having left his country when very young, that he had almost forgotten his own language. Again and again during the evening he started talking in English as if glad of the opportunity to speak his native tongue once more; but after a sentence or two a word wanted would not come, and it would have to be spoken in Spanish, and gradually he would relapse into unadulterated Spanish again, then, becoming conscious of the relapse, he would make a fresh start in English.
As we sat talking after supper I expressed my intention of leaving early in the morning so as to get over a few leagues while it was fresh, as the weather was very hot and I had to consider my one horse. He was sorry not to be able to provide me with another, but at one of the large estancias I would come to next morning I would no doubt be able to get one. He then mentioned that in about an hour and a half or two hours I should arrive at an estancia named La Paja Brava, where many riding-horses were kept.
This was good news indeed! La Paja Brava was the name of the estate my ancient friend and neighbour, Don Evaristo, had bought so many years before: no doubt I should find some of the family, and they would give me a horse and anything I wanted.
The house, when I approached it next morning, strongly reminded me of the old home of the family many leagues away, only it was if possible more lonely and dreary in appearance, without even an old half-dead acacia tree to make it less desolate. The plain all round as far as one could see was absolutely flat and treeless, the short grass burnt by the January sun to a yellowish-brown colour; while at the large watering-well, half a mile distant, the cattle were gathering in vast numbers, bellowing with thirst and raising clouds of dust in their struggles to get to the trough.
I found Don Evaristo himself in the house, and with him his first and oldest wife, with several of the grown-up children. I was grieved to see the change in my old friend; he had aged greatly in seven years; his face was now white as alabaster, and his full beard and long hair quite grey. He was suffering from some internal malady, and spent most of the day in the large kitchen and living-room, resting in an easy-chair. The fire burnt all day in the hearth in the middle of the clay floor, and the women served mate and did their work in a quiet way, talking the while; and all day long the young men and big boys came and went, coming in, one or two at a time, to sip mate, smoke, and tell the news — the state of the well, the time the water would last, the condition of the cattle, of horses strayed, and so on.
The old first wife had also aged — her whole dark, anxious face had been covered with little interlacing wrinkles; but the greatest change was in the eldest child, her daughter Cipriana, who was living permanently at La Paja Brava. The old mother had a dash of dark or negrine blood in her veins, and this strain came out strongly in the daughter, a tall woman with lustreless crinkled hair of a wrought-iron colour, large voluptuous mouth, pale dark skin, and large dark sad eyes.
I remembered that they had not always been sad, for I had known her in her full bloom — an imposing woman, her eyes sparkling with intense fire and passion, who, despite her coarse features and dark skin, had a kind of strange wild beauty which attracted men. Unhappily she placed her affections on the wrong person, a dashing young gaucho who, albeit landless and poor in cattle, made a brave appearance, especially when mounted and when man and horse glittered with silver ornaments. I recalled how one of my last sights of her had been on a Sunday morning in summer when I had ridden to a spot on the plain where it was overgrown with giant thistles, standing about ten feet high, in full flower and filling the hot air with their perfume. There, in a small open grassy space I had dismounted to watch a hawk, in hopes of finding its nest concealed somewhere among the thistles close by. And presently two persons came at a swift gallop by the narrow path through the thistles, and bursting out into that small open spot I saw that it was Cipriana, in a white dress, on a big bay horse, and her lover, who was leading the way. Catching sight of me they threw me a “Good morning” and galloped on, laughing gaily at the unexpected encounter. I thought that in her white dress, with the hot sun shining on her, her face flushed with excitement, on her big spirited horse, she looked splendid that morning.
But she gave herself too freely to her lover, and by and by there was a difference, and he rode away to return no more. It was hard for her then to face her neighbours, and eventually she went away with her mother to live at the new estancia; but even now at this distance of time it is a pain to remember her when her image comes back to my mind as I saw her on that chance visit to La Paja Brava.
Every evening during my stay, after mate had been served and there was a long vacant interval before night, she would go out from the gate to a distance of fifty or sixty yards, where an old log was lying on a piece of waste ground overgrown with nettles, burdock, and redweed, now dead and brown, and sitting on the log, her chin resting on her hand, she would fix her eyes on the dusty road half a mile away, and motionless in that dejected attitude she would remain for about an hour. When you looked closely at her you could see her lips moving, and if you came quite near her you could hear her talking in a very low voice, but she would not lift her gaze from the road nor seem to be aware of your presence. The fit or dream over, she would get up and return to the house, where she would quietly set to work with the other women in preparing the great meal of the day — the late supper of roast and boiled meat, when all the men would be back from their work with the cattle.
That was my last sight of Cipriana; what her end was I never heard, nor what was done with the Paja Brava after the death of Don Evaristo, who was gathered to his fathers a year or so after my visit. I only know that the old place where as a child I first knew him, where his cattle and horses grazed and the stream where they were watered was alive with herons and spoonbills, black-necked swans, glossy ibises in clouds, and great blue ibises with resounding voices, is now possessed by aliens, who destroy all wild bird life and grow corn on the land for the markets of Europe.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:51