We quit our old home — A winter day journey — Aspect of the country — Our new home — A prisoner in the barn — The plantation — A paradise of rats — An evening scene — The people of the house — A beggar on horseback — Mr. Trigg our schoolmaster — His double nature — Impersonates an old woman — Reading Dickens — Mr. Trigg degenerates — Once more a homeless wanderer on the great plain.
The incidents and impressions recorded in the preceding chapter relate, as I have said, to the last year or two of my five years of life in the place of my birth. Further back my memory refuses to take me. Some wonderful persons go back to their second or even their first year; I can’t, and could only tell from hearsay what I was and did up to the age of three. According to all accounts, the clouds of glory I brought into the world — a habit of smiling at everything I looked at and at every person that approached me — ceased to be visibly trailed at about that age; I only remember myself as a common little boy — just a little wild animal running about on its hind legs, amazingly interested in the world in which it found itself.
Here, then, I begin, aged five, at an early hour on a bright, cold morning in June — midwinter in that southern country of great plains or pampas; impatiently waiting for the loading and harnessing to be finished; then the being lifted to the top with the other little ones — at that time we were five; finally, the grand moment when the start was actually made with cries and much noise of stamping and snorting of horses and rattling of chains. I remember a good deal of that long journey, which began at sunrise and ended between the lights some time after sunset; for it was my very first, and I was going out into the unknown. I remember how, at the foot of the slope at the top of which the old home stood, we plunged into the river, and there was more noise and shouting and excitement until the straining animals brought us safely out on the other side. Gazing back, the low roof of the house was lost to view before long, but the trees — the row of twenty-five giant ombu-trees which gave the place its name — were visible, blue in the distance, until we were many miles on our way.
The undulating country had been left behind; before us and on both sides the land, far as one could see, was absolutely flat, everywhere green with the winter grass, but flowerless at that season, and with the gleam of water, over the whole expanse. It had been a season of great rains, and much of the flat country had been turned into shallow lakes. That was all there was to see, except the herds of cattle and horses and an occasional horseman galloping over the plain, and the sight at long distances of a grove or small plantation of trees, marking the site of an estancia, or sheep and cattle farm, these groves appearing like islands on the sea-like flat country. At length this monotonous landscape faded and vanished quite away, and the lowing of cattle and tremulous bleating of sheep died out of hearing, so that the last leagues were a blank to me, and I only came back to my senses when it was dark and they lifted me down, so stiff with cold and drowsy that I could hardly stand on my feet.
Next morning I found myself in a new and strange world. The house to my childish eyes appeared of vast size: it consisted of a long range of rooms on the ground, built of brick, with brick floors and roof thatched with rushes. The rooms at one end, fronting the road, formed a store, where the people of the surrounding country came to buy and sell, and what they brought to sell was “the produce of the country” — hides and wool and tallow in bladders, horsehair in sacks, and native cheeses. In return they could purchase anything they wanted-knives, spurs, rings for horse-gear, clothing, yerba mate and sugar; tobacco, castor-oil, salt and pepper, and oil and vinegar, and such furniture as they required — iron pots, spits for roasting, cane-chairs, and coffins. A little distance from the house were the kitchen, bakery, dairy, huge barns for storing the produce, and wood-piles big as houses, the wood being nothing but stalks of the cardoon thistle or wild artichoke, which burns like paper, so that immense quantities had to be collected to supply fuel for a large establishment.
Two of the smallest of us were handed over to the care of a sharp little native boy, aged about nine or ten years, who was told to take us out of the way and keep us amused. The first place he took us to was the great barn, the door of which stood open; it was nearly empty just then, and was the biggest interior I had ever seen; how big it really was I don’t know, but it seemed to me about as big as Olympia or the Agricultural Hall, or the Crystal Palace would be to any ordinary little London boy. No sooner were we in this vast place than we saw a strange and startling thing — a man, sitting or crouching on the floor, his hands before him, the wrists tied together, his body bound with thongs of raw hide to a big post which stood in the centre of the floor and supported the beam of the loft above. He was a young man, not more than twenty perhaps, with black hair and a smooth, pale, sallow face. His eyes were cast down, and he paid no attention to us, standing there staring at him, and he appeared to be suffering or ill. After a few moments I shrank away to the door and asked our conductor in a frightened whisper why he was tied up to a post there. Our native boy seemed to be quite pleased at the effect on us, and answered cheerfully that he was a murderer — he had committed a murder somewhere, and had been caught last evening, but as it was too late to take him to the lock-up at the village, which was a long distance away, they had brought him here as the most convenient place, and tied him in the barn to keep him safe. Later on they would come and take him away.
Murder was a common word in those days, but I had not at that time grasped its meaning; I had seen no murder done, nor any person killed in a fight; I only knew that it must be something wicked and horrible. Nevertheless, the shock I had received passed away in the course of that first morning in a new world; but what I had seen in the barn was not forgotten: the image of that young man tied to the post, his bent head and downward gaze, and ghastly face shaded by lank black hair, is as plain to me now as if I had seen him but yesterday.
A little back from the buildings were gardens and several acres of plantation — both shade and fruit trees. Viewed from the outside, it all looked like an immense poplar grove, on account of the double rows of tall Lombardy poplar trees at the borders. The whole ground, including the buildings, was surrounded by an immense ditch or moat.
Up till now I had lived without trees, with the exception of those twenty-five I have spoken of, which formed a landmark for all the country round; so that this great number — hundreds and thousands — of trees was a marvel and delight. But the plantation and what it was to me will form the subject of a chapter by itself. It was a paradise of rats, as I very soon discovered. Our little native guide and instructor was full of the subject, and promised to let us see the rats with our own eyes as soon as the sun went down; that would finish the day of strange sights with the strangest of all.
Accordingly, when the time came he led us to a spot beyond the barns and wood-piles, where all the offal of slaughtered animals, bones, and unconsumed meats from the kitchen, and rubbish from a wasteful, disorderly establishment, were cast out each day. Here we all sat down in a row on a log among the dead weeds on the border of the evil-smelling place, and he told us to be very still and speak no word; for, said he, unless we move or make a sound the rats will not heed us; they will regard us as so many wooden images. And so it proved, for very soon after the sun had gone down we began to see rats stealing out of the woodpile and from the dead weeds on every side, all converging to that one spot where a generous table was spread for them and for the brown carrion hawks that came by day. Big, old, grey rats with long, scaly tails, others smaller, and smaller still, the least of all being little bigger than mice, until the whole place swarmed with them, all busily hunting for food, feeding, squealing, fighting, and biting. I had not known that the whole world contained so many rats as I now saw congregated before me.
Suddenly our guide jumped up and loudly clapped his hands, which produced a curious effect — a short, sharp little shriek of terror from the busy multitude, followed by absolute stillness, every rat frozen to stone, which lasted for a second or two; then a swift scuttling away in all directions, vanishing with a rustling sound through the dead grass and wood.
It had been a fine spectacle, and we enjoyed it amazingly; it raised Mus decumanus to a beast of immense importance in my mind. Soon he became even more important in an unpleasant way when it was discovered that rats were abundant indoors as well as out. The various noises they made at night were terrifying; they would run over our beds and sometimes we would wake up to find that one had got in between the sheets and was trying frantically to get out. Then we would yell, and half the house would be roused and imagine some dreadful thing. But when they found out the cause, they would only laugh at and rebuke us for being such poor little cowards.
But what an astonishing place was this to which we had come! The great house and many buildings and the people in it, the foss, the trees that enchanted me, the dirt and disorder, vile rats and fleas and pests of all sorts! The place had been for some years in the hands of a Spanish or native family — indolent, careless, happy-go-lucky people. The husband and wife were never in harmony or agreement about anything for five minutes together, and by and by he would go away to the capital “on business,” which would keep him from home for weeks, and even months, at a stretch. And she, with three light-headed, grown-up daughters, would be left to run the establishment with half-a-dozen hired men and women to assist her. I remember her well, as she stayed on a few days in order to hand over the place to us — an excessively fat, inactive woman, who sat most of the day in an easy-chair, surrounded by her pets — lap-dogs, Amazon parrots, and several shrieking parakeets.
Before many days she left, with all her noisy crowd of dogs and birds and daughters, and of the events of the succeeding days and weeks nothing remains in memory except one exceedingly vivid impression — my first sight of a beggar on horseback. It was by no means an uncommon sight in those days when, as the gauchos were accustomed to say, a man without a horse was a man without legs; but it was new to me when one morning I saw a tall man on a tall horse ride up to our gate, accompanied by a boy of nine or ten on a pony. I was struck with the man’s singular appearance, sitting upright and stiff in his saddle, staring straight before him. He had long grey hair and beard, and wore a tall straw hat shaped like an inverted flower-pot, with a narrow brim — a form of hat which had lately gone out of fashion among the natives but was still used by a few. Over his clothes he wore a red cloak or poncho, and heavy iron spurs on his feet, which were cased in the botas de potro, or long stockings made of a colt’s untanned hide.
Arrived at the gate he shouted Ave Maria purissima in a loud voice, then proceeded to give an account of himself, informing us that he was a blind man and obliged to subsist on the charity of his neighbours. They in their turn, he said, in providing him with all he required were only doing good to themselves, seeing that those who showed the greatest compassion towards their afflicted fellow-creatures were regarded with special favour by the Powers above.
After delivering himself of all this and much more as if preaching a sermon, he was assisted from his horse and led by the hand to the front door, after which the boy drew back and folding his arms across his breast stared haughtily at us children and the others who had congregated at the spot. Evidently he was proud of his position as page or squire or groom of the important person in the tall straw hat, red cloak, and iron spurs, who galloped about the land collecting tribute from the people and talking loftily about the Powers above.
Asked what he required at our hands the beggar replied that he wanted yerba mate, sugar, bread, and some hard biscuits, also cut tobacco and paper for cigarettes and some leaf tobacco for cigars. When all these things had been given him, he was asked (not ironically) if there was anything else we could supply him with, and he replied, Yes, he was still in want of rice, flour, and farina, an onion or two, a head or two of garlic, also salt, pepper, and pimento, or red pepper. And when he had received all these comestibles and felt them safely packed in his saddle-bags, he returned thanks, bade good-bye in the most dignified manner, and was led back by the haughty little boy to his tall horse.
We had been settled some months in our new home, and I was just about half way through my sixth year, when one morning at breakfast we children were informed to our utter dismay that we could no longer be permitted to run absolutely wild; that a schoolmaster had been engaged who would live in the house and would have us in the schoolroom during the morning and part of the afternoon.
Our hearts were heavy in us that day, while we waited apprehensively for the appearance of the man who would exercise such a tremendous power over us and would stand between us and our parents, especially our mother, who had ever been our shield and refuge from all pains and troubles. Up till now they had acted on the principle that children were best left to themselves, that the more liberty they had the better it was for them. Now it almost looked as if they were turning against us; but we knew that it could not be so — we knew that every slightest pain or grief that touched us was felt more keenly by our mother than by ourselves, and we were compelled to believe her when she told us that she, too, lamented the restraint that would be put upon us, but knew that it would be for our ultimate good.
And on that very afternoon the feared man arrived, Mr. Trigg by name, an Englishman, a short, stoutish, almost fat little man, with grey hair, clean-shaved sunburnt face, a crooked nose which had been broken or was born so, clever mobile mouth, and blue-grey eyes with a humorous twinkle in them and crow’s-feet at the corners. Only to us youngsters, as we soon discovered, that humorous face and the twinkling eyes were capable of a terrible sternness. He was loved, I think, by adults generally, and regarded with feelings of an opposite nature by children. For he was a schoolmaster who hated and despised teaching as much as children in the wild hated to be taught. He followed teaching because all work was excessively irksome to him, yet he had to do something for a living, and this was the easiest thing he could find to do. How such a man ever came to be so far from home in a half-civilized country was a mystery, but there he was, a bachelor and homeless man after twenty or thirty years on the pampas, with little or no money in his pocket, and no belongings except his horse — he never owned more than one at a time — and its cumbrous native saddle, and the saddle-bags in which he kept his wardrobe and whatever he possessed besides. He didn’t own a box. On his horse, with his saddle-bags behind him, he would journey about the land, visiting all the English, Scotch, and Irish settlers, who were mostly sheep-farmers, but religiously avoiding the houses of the natives. With the natives he could not affiliate, and not properly knowing and incapable of understanding them he regarded them with secret dislike and suspicion. And by and by he would find a house where there were children old enough to be taught their letters, and Mr. Trigg would be hired by the month, like a shepherd or cowherd, to teach them, living with the family. He would go on very well for a time, his failings being condoned for the sake of the little ones; but by and by there would be a falling-out, and Mr. Trigg would saddle his horse, buckle on the saddle-bags, and ride forth over the wide plain in quest of a new home. With us he made an unusually long stay; he liked good living and comforts generally, and at the same time he was interested in the things of the mind, which had no place in the lives of the British settlers of that period; and now he found himself in a very comfortable house, where there were books to read and people to converse with who were not quite like the rude sheep — and cattle-farmers he had been accustomed to live with. He was on his best behaviour, and no doubt strove hard and not unsuccessfully to get the better of his weaknesses. He was looked on as a great acquisition, and made much of; in the school-room he was a tyrant, and having been forbidden to punish us by striking, he restrained himself when to thrash us would have been an immense relief to him. But pinching was not striking, and he would pinch our ears until they almost bled. It was a poor punishment and gave him little satisfaction, but it had to serve. Out of school his temper would change as by magic. He was then the life of the house, a delightful talker with an inexhaustible fund of good stories, a good reader, mimic, and actor as well.
One afternoon we had a call from a quaint old Scotch dame, in a queer dress, sunbonnet, and spectacles, who introduced herself as the wife of Sandy Maclachlan, a sheep-farmer who lived about twenty-five miles away. It wasn’t right, she said, that such near neighbours should not know one another, so she had ridden those few leagues to find out what we were like. Established at the tea-table, she poured out a torrent of talk in broadest Scotch, in her high-pitched cracked old-woman’s voice, and gave us an intimate domestic history of all the British residents of the district. It was all about what delightful people they were, and how even their little weaknesses — their love of the bottle, their meannesses, their greed and low cunning — only served to make them more charming. Never was there such a funny old dame or one more given to gossip and scandal-mongering! Then she took herself off, and presently we children, still under her spell, stole out to watch her departure from the gate. But she was not there — she had vanished unaccountably; and by and by what was our astonishment and disgust to hear that the old Scotch body was none other than our own Mr. Trigg! That our needle-sharp eyes, concentrated for an hour on her face, had failed to detect the master who was so painfully familiar to us seemed like a miracle.
Mr. Trigg confessed that play-acting was one of the things he had done before quitting his country; but it was only one of a dozen or twenty vocations which he had taken up at various times, only to drop them again as soon as he made the discovery that they one and all entailed months and even years of hard work if he was ever to fulfil his ambitious desire of doing and being something great in the world. As a reader he certainly was great, and every evening, when the evenings were long, he would give a two hours’ reading to the household. Dickens was then the most popular writer in the world, and he usually read Dickens, to the delight of his listeners. Here he could display his histrionic qualities to the full. He impersonated every character in the book, endowing him with voice, gestures, manner, and expression that fitted him perfectly. It was more like a play than a reading.
“What should we do without Mr. Trigg?” our elders were accustomed to say; but we little ones, remembering that it would not be the beneficent countenance of Mr. Pickwick that would look on us in the schoolroom on the following morning, only wished that Mr. Trigg was far, far away.
Perhaps they made too much of him: at all events he fell into the habit of going away every Saturday morning and not returning until the following Monday. His week-end visit was always to some English or Scotch neighbour, a sheep-farmer, ten or fifteen or twenty miles distant, where the bottle or demi-john of white Brazilian rum was always on the table. It was the British exile’s only substitute for his dear lost whisky in that far country. At home there was only tea and coffee to drink. From these outings he would return on Monday morning, quite sober and almost too dignified in manner, but with inflamed eyes and (in the schoolroom) the temper of a devil. On one of these occasions, something — our stupidity perhaps, or an exceptionally bad headache — tried him beyond endurance, and taking down his revenque, or native horse-whip made of raw hide, from the wall, he began laying about him with such extraordinary fury that the room was quickly in an uproar. Then all at once my mother appeared on the scene, and the tempest was stilled, though the master, with the whip in his uplifted hand, still stood, glaring with rage at us. She stood silent a moment or two, her face very white, then spoke: “Children, you may go and play now. School is over;” then, lest the full purport of her words should not be understood, she added, “Your schoolmaster is going to leave us.”
It was an unspeakable relief, a joyful moment; yet on that very day, and on the next before he rode away, I, even I who had been unjustly and cruelly struck with a horsewhip, felt my little heart heavy in me when I saw the change in his face — the dark, still, brooding look, and knew that the thought of his fall and the loss of his home was exceedingly bitter to him. Doubtless my mother noticed it, too, and shed a few compassionate tears for the poor man, once more homeless on the great plain. But he could not be kept after that insane outbreak. To strike their children was to my parents a crime; it changed their nature and degraded them, and Mr. Trigg could not be forgiven.
Mr. Trigg, as I have said before, was a long time with us, and the happy deliverance I have related did not occur until I was near the end of my eighth year. At the present stage of my story I am not yet six, and the incident related in the following chapter, in which Mr. Trigg figures, occurred when I was within a couple of months of completing my sixth year.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55