Our third and last schoolmaster — His many accomplishments — His weakness and final breakdown — My important brother — Four brothers, unlike in everything except the voice — A strange meeting — Jack the Killer, his life and character — A terrible fight — My brother seeks instructions from Jack — The gaucho’s way of fighting and Jack’s contrasted — Our sham fight with knives — A wound and the result — My feeling about Jack and his eyes — Bird-lore — My two elder brothers’ practical joke.
The vanishing of the unholy priest from our ken left us just about where we had been before his large red face had lifted itself above our horizon. At all events the illumination had not been great. And thereafter it was holiday once more for a goodish time until yet a third tutor came upon the scene:— yet another stranger in a strange land who had fallen into low (and hot) water and was willing to fill a vacant time in educating us. Just as in the case of the O’Keefe, he was thrust upon my good-natured and credulous father by his friends in the capital, who had this gentleman with them and were anxious to get him off their hands. He was, they assured my father, just the man he wanted, a fine fellow of good family, highly educated and all that; but he had been a bit wild, and all that was wanted to bring him round was to get him out a good distance from the capital and its temptations and into a quiet, peaceful home like ours. Strange to say, he actually turned out to be all they had said, and more. He had studied hard at college and when reading for a profession; he was a linguist, a musician, he had literary tastes, and was well read in science, and above all he was a first-rate mathematician. Naturally, to my studious brother he came as an angel beautiful and bright, with no suggestion of the fiend in him; for not only was he a mathematician, but he was also an accomplished fencer and boxer. And so the two were soon fast friends, and worked hard together over their books, and would then repair for an hour or two every day to the plantation to fence and box and practise with pistol and rifle at the target. He also took to the humbler task of teaching the rest of us with considerable zeal, and succeeded in rousing a certain enthusiasm in us. We were, he told us, grossly ignorant — simply young barbarians; but he had penetrated beneath the thick crust that covered our minds, and was pleased to find that there were possibilities of better things; that if we would but second his efforts and throw ourselves, heart and soul, into our studies, we should eventually develop from the grub condition to that of purple-winged butterflies.
Our new teacher was tremendously eloquent, and it looked as if he had succeeded in conquering that wildness or weakness or whatever it was which had been his undoing in the past. Then came a time when he would ask for a horse and go for a long ride. He would make a call at some English estancia, and drink freely of the wine or spirits hospitably set on the table. And the result would be that he would come home raving like a lunatic:— a very little alcohol would drive him mad. Then would follow a day or two of repentance and black melancholy; then recovery and a fresh fair start.
All this was somewhat upsetting to all of us: to my mother it was peculiarly distressing, and became more so when, in one of his repentant fits and touched by her words, he gave her a packet of his mother’s letters to read:— the pathetic letters of a broken-hearted woman to her son, her only and adored child, lost to her for ever in a distant country, thousands of miles from home. These sad appeals only made my mother more anxious to save him, and it was no doubt her influence that for a while did save and make him able to succeed in his efforts to overcome his fatal weakness. But he was of too sanguine a temper, and by and by began to think that he had conquered, that he was safe, that it was time for him to do something great; and with some brilliant scheme he had hatched in his mind, he left us and went back to the capital to work it out. But alas! before many months, when he was getting seriously to work, with friends and money to help him and every prospect of success, he broke down once more, so hopelessly that once more he had to be got rid of, and he was sent out of the country, but whether back to his own people or to some other remote district in Argentina I do not remember, nor do I know what became of him.
Thus disastrously ended the third and last attempt my father made to have us instructed at home. Nor could he send us to town, where there was but one English school for boys, run by a weak, sickly gentleman, whose house was a nest of fevers and every sort of ailment incidental to boys herded together in an unhealthy boarding-school. Prosperous English people sent their children home to be educated at that time, but it was enormously expensive and we were not well off enough. A little later an exception had to be made in the case of my elder brother, who would not settle down to sheep-farming or any other occupation out on the pampas, but had set his heart on pursuing his studies abroad.
At this period of my life this brother was so important a person to me that I shall have to give even more space to him in this chapter than he had in the last one. Yet of my brothers he was not the one nearest to my heart. He was five full years my senior, and naturally associated with an elder brother, while we two smaller ones were left to amuse ourselves together in our own childish way. With a younger brother for only playmate, I prolonged my childhood, and when I was ten my brother of fifteen appeared a young man to me. We were all four extremely unlike in character as well as appearance, and alike in one thing only — the voice, inherited from our father; but just as our relationship appeared in that one physical character, so I think that under all the diversities in our minds and temperaments there was a hidden quality, a something of the spirit, which made us one; and this, I believe, came from the mother’s side.
That family likeness in the voice was brought home to us in a curious way just about this time, when I was in my tenth year. My brother went one day to Buenos Ayres, and arriving at the stable where our horses were always put up, long after dark, he left his horse, and on going out called to the stableman, giving him some direction. As soon as he had spoken, a feeble voice was heard from the open door of a dark room near the gate, calling, “That’s a Hudson that spoke! Father or son — who is it?”
My brother turned back and groped his way into the dark room, and replied: “Yes, I’m a Hudson — Edwin’s my name. Who are you?”
“Oh, I’m glad you’re here! I’m your old friend Jack,” returned the other, and it was a happy meeting between the boy in his sixteenth year and the grey-headed old battered vagabond and fighter, known far and wide in our part of the country as Jack the Killer, and by other dreadful nicknames, both English and Spanish. Now he was lying there alone, friendless, penniless, ill, on a rough bed the stableman had given him in his room. My brother came home full of the subject, sad at poor old Jack’s broken-down condition and rejoicing that he had by chance found him there and had been able to give him help.
Jack the Killer was one of those strange Englishmen frequently to be met with in those days, who had taken to the gaucho’s manner of life, when the gaucho had more liberty and was a more lawless being than he is now or can ever be again, unless that vast level area of the pampas should at some future time become dispeopled and go back to what it was down to half a century ago. He had drifted into that outlandish place when young, and finding the native system of life congenial had made himself as much of a native as he could, and dressed like them and talked their language, and was horse-breaker, cattle-drover, and many other things by turn, and like any other gaucho he could make his own bridle and whip and horse-gear and lasso and bolas out of raw hide. And when not working he could gamble and drink like any gaucho to the manner born — and fight too. But here there was a difference. Jack could affiliate with the natives, yet could never be just like them. The stamp of the foreigner, of the Englishman, was never wholly eradicated. He retained a certain dignity, a reserve, almost a stiffness, in his manner which made him a marked man among them, and would have made him a butt to the wits and bullies among his comrades but for his pride and deadly power. To be mocked as a foreigner, a gringo, an inferior being, was what he could not stand, and the result was that he had to fight, and it then came as a disagreeable revelation that when Jack fought he fought to kill. This was considered bad form; for though men were often killed when fighting, the gaucho’s idea is that you do not fight with that intention, but rather to set your mark upon and conquer your adversary, and so give yourself fame and glory. Naturally, they were angry with Jack and became anxious to get rid of him, and by and by he gave them an excuse. He fought with and killed a man, a famous young fighter, who had many relations and friends, and some of these determined to avenge his death. And one night a band of nine men came to the rancho where Jack was sleeping, and leaving two of their number at the door to kill him if he attempted to escape that way, the others burst into his room, their long knives in their hands. As the door was thrown open Jack woke, and instantly divining the cause of the intrusion, he snatched up the knife near his pillow and sprang like a cat out of his bed; and then began a strange and bloody fight, one man, stark naked, with a short-bladed knife in his hand, against seven men with their long facons, in a small pitch-dark room. The advantage Jack had was that his bare feet made no sound on the clay floor, and that he knew the exact position of a few pieces of furniture in the room. He had, too, a marvellous agility, and the intense darkness was all in his favour, as the attackers could hardly avoid wounding one another. At all events, the result was that three of them were killed and the other four wounded, all more or less seriously. And from that time Jack was allowed to live among them as a harmless, peaceful member of the community, so long as no person twitted him with being a gringo.
Quite naturally, my brother regarded Jack as one of his greatest heroes, and whenever he heard of his being in our neighbourhood he would mount his horse and go off in search of him, to spend long hours in his company and persuade him to talk about that awful fight in a dark room with so many against him. One result of his intimacy with Jack was that he became dissatisfied with his own progress in the manly art of self-defence. It was all very well to make himself proficient with the foils and as a boxer, and to be a good shot, but he was living among people who had the knife for sole weapon, and if by chance he were attacked by a man with a knife, and had no pistol or other weapon, he would find himself in an exceedingly awkward position. There was then nothing to do but to practise with the knife, and he wanted Jack, who had been so successful with that weapon, to give him some lessons in its use.
Jack shook his head. If his boy friend wanted to learn the gaucho way of fighting he could easily do so. The gaucho wrapped his poncho on his left arm to use it as a shield, and flourished his facon, or knife with a sword-like blade and a guard to the handle. This whirling about of the knife was quite an art, and had a fine look when two accomplished fighters stood up to each other and made their weapons look like shining wheels or revolving mirrors in the sun. Meanwhile, the object of each man was to find his opportunity for a sweeping blow which would lay his opponent’s face open. Now all that was pretty to look at, but it was mere playing at fighting and he never wanted to practise it. He was not a fighter by inclination; he wanted to live with and be one with the gauchos, but not to fight. There were numbers of men among them who never fought and were never challenged to fight, and he would be of those if they would let him. He never had a pistol, he wore a knife like everybody else, but a short knife for use and not to fight. But when he found that, after all, he had to fight or else exist on sufferance as a despised creature among them, the butt of every fool and bully, he did fight in a way which he had never been taught and could not teach to another. It was nature: it was in him. When the dangerous moment came and knives flashed out, he was instantly transformed into a different being. He was on springs, he couldn’t keep still or in one place for a second, or a fraction of a second; he was like a cat, like india rubber, like steel — like anything you like, but something that flew round and about his opponent and was within striking distance one second and a dozen yards away the next, and when an onset was looked for it never came where it was expected but from another side, and in two minutes his opponent became confused, and struck blindly at him, and his opportunity came, not to slash and cut but to drive his knife with all his power to the heart in the other’s body and finish him for ever. That was how he had fought and had killed, and because of that way of fighting he had got his desire and had been permitted to live in peace and quiet until he had grown grey, and no fighter or swashbuckler had said to him, “Do you still count yourself a killer of men? then kill me and prove your right to the title,” and no one had jeered at or called him “gringo.”
In spite of this discouragement my brother was quite determined to learn the art of defending himself with a knife, and he would often go out into the plantation and practise for an hour with a tree for an opponent, and try to capture Jack’s unpremeditated art of darting hither and thither about his enemy and making his deadly strokes. But as the tree stood still and had no knife to oppose him, it was unsatisfactory, and one day he proposed to me and my younger brother to have a fight with knives, just to find out if he was making any progress. He took us out to the far end of the plantation, where no one would see us, and produced three very big knives, with blades like butchers’ knives, and asked us to attack him with all our might and try our best to wound him, while he would act solely on the defensive. At first we declined, and reminded him that he had punished us terribly with gloves and foils and singlestick, and that it would be even worse with knives-he would cut us in pieces! No, he said, he would not dream of hurting us: it would be absolutely safe for us, and for him too, as he didn’t for a moment believe that we could touch him with our weapons, no matter how hard we tried. And at last we were persuaded, and taking off our jackets and wrapping them, gaucho-fashion, on our left arms as a protection, we attacked him with the big knives, and getting excited we slashed and lunged at him with all our power, while he danced and jumped and flew about a la Jack the Killer, using his knife only to guard himself and to try and knock ours out of our hands; but in one such attempt at disarming me his weapon went too far and wounded my right arm about three inches below the shoulder. The blood rushed out and dyed my sleeve red, and the fight came to an end. He was greatly distressed, and’ running off to the house, quickly returned with a jug of water, sponge, towel, and linen to bind the wounded arm. It was a deep long cut, and the scar has remained to this day, so that I can never wash in the morning without seeing it and remembering that old fight with knives. Eventually he succeeded in stopping the flow of blood, and binding my arm tightly round; and then he made the desponding remark, “Of course they will have to know all about it now.”
“Oh no,” I returned, “why should they? My arm has stopped bleeding, and they won’t find out. If they notice that I can’t use it — well, I can just say I had a knock.”
He was immensely relieved, and so pleased that he patted me on the back — the first time he had ever done so — and praised me for my manliness in taking it that way; and to be praised by him was such a rare and precious thing that I felt very proud, and began to think I was almost as good as a fighter myself. And when all traces of blood had been removed and we were back in the house and at the supper-table, I was unusually talkative and hilarious, not only to prevent any one from suspecting that I had just been seriously wounded in a fight with knives, but also to prove to my brother that I could take these knocks with proper fortitude. No doubt he was amused; but he didn’t laugh at me, he was too delighted to escape being found out.
There were no more fights with knives, although when my wound was healed he did broach the subject again on two or three occasions, and was anxious to convince me that it would be greatly to our advantage to know how to defend ourselves with a knife while living among people who were always as ready on any slight provocation to draw a knife on you as a cat was to unsheathe its claws. Nor could all he told us about the bloody and glorious deeds of Jack el Matador arouse any enthusiasm in me; and though in his speech and manner Jack was as quiet and gentle a being as one could meet, I could never overcome a curious shrinking, an almost uncanny feeling, in his presence, particularly when he looked straight at me with those fine eyes of his. They were light grey in colour, clear and bright as in a young man, but the expression pained me; it was too piercing, too concentrated, and it reminded me of the look in a cat’s eyes when it crouches motionless just before making its dash at a bird.
Nevertheless, the fight and wound had one good result for me; my brother had all at once become less masterful, or tyrannical, towards me, and even began to show some interest in my solitary disposition and tastes. A little bird incident brought out this feeling in a way that was very agreeable to me. One evening I told him and our eldest brother that I had seen a strange thing in a bird which had led me to find out something new. Our commonest species was the parasitic cowbird, which laid its eggs anywhere in the nests of all the other small birds. Its colour was a deep glossy purple, almost black; and seeing two of these birds flying over my head, I noticed that they had a small chestnut-coloured spot beneath the wing, which showed that they were not the common species. It had then occurred to me that I had heard a peculiar note or cry uttered by what I took to be the cowbird, which was unlike any note of that bird; and following this clue, I had discovered that we had a bird in our plantation which was like the cowbird in size, colour, and general appearance, but was a different species. They appeared amused by my story, and a few days later they closely interrogated me on three consecutive evenings as to what I had seen that was remarkable that day, in birds especially, and were disappointed because I had nothing interesting to tell them.
The next day my brother said he had a confession to make to me. He and the elder brother had agreed to play a practical joke on me, and had snared a common cowbird and dyed or painted its tail a brilliant scarlet, then liberated it, expecting that I should meet with it in my day’s rambles and bird-watching in the plantation and would be greatly excited at the discovery of yet a third purple cowbird, with a scarlet tail, but otherwise not distinguishable from the common one. Now, on reflection, he was glad I had not found their bird and given them their laugh, and he was ashamed at having tried to play such a mean trick on me!
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:09