Happiest time — First visit to the Capital — Old and New Buenos Ayres — Vivid impressions — Solitary walk — How I learnt to go alone — Lost — The house we stayed at and the sea-like river — Rough and narrow streets — Rows of posts — Carts and noise — A great church festival — Young men in black and scarlet — River scenes — Washerwomen and their language — Their word-fights with young fashionables — Night watchmen — A young gentleman’s pastime — A fishing dog — A fine gentleman seen stoning little birds — A glimpse of Don Eusebio, the Dictator’s fool.
The happiest time of my boyhood was at that early period, a little past the age of six, when I had my own pony to ride on, and was allowed to stay on his back just as long and go as far from home as I liked. I was like the young bird when on first quitting the nest it suddenly becomes conscious of its power to fly. My early flying days were, however, soon interrupted, when my mother took me on my first visit to Buenos Ayres; that is to say, the first I remember, as I must have been taken there once before as an infant in arms, since we lived too far from town for any missionary-clergyman to travel all that distance just to baptize a little baby. Buenos Ayres is now the wealthiest, most populous, Europeanized city in South America: what it was like at that time these glimpses into a far past will serve to show. Coming as a small boy of an exceptionally impressionable mind, from that green plain where people lived the simple pastoral life, everything I saw in the city impressed me deeply, and the sights which impressed me the most are as vivid in my mind to-day as they ever were. I was a solitary little boy in my rambles about the streets, for though I had a younger brother who was my only playmate, he was not yet five, and too small to keep me company in my walks. Nor did I mind having no one with me. Very, very early in my boyhood I had acquired the habit of going about alone to amuse myself in my own way, and it was only after years, when my age was about twelve, that my mother told me how anxious this singularity in me used to make her. She would miss me when looking out to see what the children were doing, and I would be called and searched for, to be found hidden away somewhere in the plantation. Then she began to keep an eye on me, and when I was observed stealing off she would secretly follow and watch me, standing motionless among the tall weeds or under the trees by the half-hour, staring at vacancy. This distressed her very much; then to her great relief and joy she discovered that I was there with a motive which she could understand and appreciate: that I was watching some living thing, an insect perhaps, but oftener a bird — a pair of little scarlet flycatchers building a nest of lichen on a peach tree, or some such beautiful thing. And as she loved all living things herself she was quite satisfied that I was not going queer in my head, for that was what she had been fearing.
The strangeness of the streets was a little too much for me at the start, and I remember that on first venturing out by myself a little distance from home I got lost. In despair of ever finding my way back I began to cry, hiding my face against a post at a street corner, and was there soon surrounded by quite a number of passers-by; then a policeman came up, with brass buttons on his blue coat and a sword at his side, and taking me by the arm he asked me in a commanding voice where I lived — the name of the street and the number of the house. I couldn’t tell him; then I began to get frightened on account of his sword and big black moustache and loud rasping voice, and suddenly ran away, and after running for about six or eight minutes found myself back at home, to my surprise and joy.
The house where we stayed with English friends was near the front, or what was then the front, that part of the city which faced the Plata river, a river which was like the sea, with no visible shore beyond; and like the sea it was tidal, and differed only in its colour, which was a muddy red instead of blue or green. The house was roomy, and like most of the houses at that date had a large courtyard paved with red tiles and planted with small lemon trees and flowering shrubs of various kinds. The streets were straight and narrow, paved with round boulder stones the size of a football, the pavements with brick or flagstones, and so narrow they would hardly admit of more than two persons walking abreast. Along the pavements on each side of the street were rows of posts placed at a distance of ten yards apart. These strange-looking rows of posts, which foreigners laughed to see, were no doubt the remains of yet ruder times, when ropes of hide were stretched along the side of the pavements to protect the foot-passengers from runaway horses, wild cattle driven by wild men from the plains, and other dangers of the narrow streets. As they were then paved the streets must have been the noisiest in the world, on account of the immense numbers of big springless carts in them. Imagine the thunderous racket made by a long procession of these carts, when they were returning empty, and the drivers, as was often the case, urged their horses to a gallop, and they bumped and thundered over the big round stones!
Just opposite the house we stayed at there was a large church, one of the largest of the numerous churches of the city, and one of my most vivid memories relates to a great annual festival at the church — that of the patron saint’s day. It had been open to worshippers all day, but the chief service was held about three o’clock in the afternoon; at all events it was at that hour when a great attendance of fashionable people took place. I watched them as they came in couples, families and small groups, in every case the ladies, beautifully dressed, attended by their cavaliers. At the door of the church the gentleman would make his bow and withdraw to the street before the building, where a sort of outdoor gathering was formed of all those who had come as escorts to the ladies, and where they would remain until the service was over. The crowd in the street grew and grew until there were about four or five hundred gentlemen, mostly young, in the gathering, all standing in small groups, conversing in an animated way, so that the street was filled with the loud humming sound of their blended voices. These men were all natives, all of the good or upper class of the native society, and all dressed exactly alike in the fashion of that time. It was their dress and the uniform appearance of so large a number of persons, most of them with young, handsome, animated faces, that fascinated me and kept me on the spot gazing at them until the big bells began to thunder at the conclusion of the service and the immense concourse of gaily-dressed ladies swarmed out, and immediately the meeting broke up, the gentlemen hurrying back to meet them.
They all wore silk hats and the glossiest black broadcloth, not even a pair of trousers of any other shade was seen; and all wore the scarlet silk or fine cloth waistcoat which, at that period, was considered the right thing for every citizen of the republic to wear; also, in lieu of buttonhole, a scarlet ribbon pinned to the lapel of the coat. It was a pretty sight, and the concourse reminded me of a flock of military starlings, a black or dark-plumaged bird with a scarlet breast, one of my feathered favourites.
My rambles were almost always on the front, since I could walk there a mile or two from home, north or south, without getting lost, always with the vast expanse of water on one hand, with many big ships looking dim in the distance, and numerous lighters or belanders coming from them with cargoes of merchandise which they unloaded into carts, these going out a quarter of a mile in the shallow water to meet them. Then there were the water-carts going and coming in scores and hundreds, for at that period there was no water supply to the houses, and every house-holder had to buy muddy water by the bucket at his own door from the watermen.
One of the most attractive spots to me was the congregating place of the lavanderas, south of my street. Here on the broad beach under the cliff one saw a whiteness like a white cloud, covering the ground for a space of about a third of a mile; and the cloud, as one drew near, resolved itself into innumerable garments, sheets and quilts, and other linen pieces, fluttering from long lines, and covering the low rocks washed clean by the tide and the stretches of green turf between. It was the spot where the washerwomen were allowed to wash all the dirty linen of Buenos Ayres in public. All over the ground the women, mostly negresses, were seen on their knees, beside the pools among the rocks, furiously scrubbing and pounding away at their work, and like all negresses they were exceedingly vociferous, and their loud gabble, mingled with yells and shrieks of laughter, reminded me of the hubbub made by a great concourse of gulls, ibises, godwits, geese, and other noisy water-fowl on some marshy lake. It was a wonderfully animated scene, and drew me to it again and again: I found, however, that it was necessary to go warily among these women, as they looked with suspicion at idling boys, and sometimes, when I picked my way among the spread garments, I was sharply ordered off. Then, too, they often quarrelled over their right to certain places and spaces among themselves; then very suddenly their hilarious gabble would change to wild cries of anger and torrents of abuse. By and by I discovered that their greatest rages and worst language were when certain young gentlemen of the upper classes visited the spot to amuse themselves by baiting the lavanderas. The young gentleman would saunter about in an absent-minded manner and presently walk right on to a beautifully embroidered and belaced nightdress or other dainty garment spread out to dry on the sward or rock, and, standing on it, calmly proceed to take out and light a cigarette. Instantly the black virago would be on her feet confronting him and pouring out a torrent of her foulest expressions and deadliest curses. He, in a pretended rage, would reply in even worse language. That would put her on her mettle; for now all her friends and foes scattered about the ground would suspend their work to listen with all their ears; and the contest of words growing louder and fiercer would last until the combatants were both exhausted and unable to invent any more new and horrible expressions of opprobrium to hurl at each other. Then the insulted young gentleman would kick the garment away in a fury and hurling the unfinished cigarette in his adversary’s face would walk off with his nose in the air.
I laugh to recall these unseemly word-battles on the beach, but they were shocking to me when I first heard them as a small, innocent-minded boy, and it only made the case worse when I was assured that the young gentleman was only acting a part, that the extreme anger he exhibited, which might have served as an excuse for using such language, was all pretence.
Another favourite pastime of these same idle, rich young gentlemen offended me as much as the one I have related. The night-watchmen, called Serenos, of that time interested me in an extraordinary way. When night came it appeared that the fierce policemen, with their swords and brass buttons, were no longer needed to safeguard the people, and their place in the streets was taken by a quaint, frowsy-looking body of men, mostly old, some almost decrepit, wearing big cloaks and carrying staffs and heavy iron lanterns with a tallow candle alight inside. But what a pleasure it was to lie awake at night and listen to their voices calling the hours! The calls began at the stroke of eleven, and then from beneath the window would come the wonderful long drawling call of Las on — ce han da — do y se — re — no, which means eleven of the clock and all serene, but if clouded the concluding word would be nu — bla — do, and so on, according to the weather. From all the streets, from all over the town, the long-drawn calls would float to my listening ears, with infinite variety in the voices — the high and shrill, the falsetto, the harsh, raucous note like the caw of the carrion crow, the solemn, booming bass, and then some fine, rich, pure voice that soared heavenwards above all the others and was like the pealing notes of an organ.
I loved the poor night-watchmen and their cries, and it grieved my little soft heart to hear that it was considered fine sport by the rich young gentlemen to sally forth at night and do battle with them, and to deprive them of their staffs and lanterns, which they took home and kept as trophies.
Another human phenomenon which annoyed and shocked my tender mind, like that of the contests on the beach between young gentlemen and washerwomen, was the multitude of beggars which infested the town. These were not like our dignified beggar on horseback, with his red poncho, spurs and tall straw hat, who rode to your gate, and having received his tribute, blessed you and rode away to the next estancia. These city beggars on the pavement were the most brutal, even fiendish, looking men I had ever seen. Most of them were old soldiers, who, having served their ten, fifteen, or twenty years, according to the nature of the crime for which they had been condemned to the army, had been discharged or thrown out to live like carrion-hawks on what they could pick up. Twenty times a day at least you would hear the iron gate opening from the courtyard into the street swung open, followed by the call or shout of the beggar demanding charity in the name of God. Outside you could not walk far without being confronted by one of these men, who would boldly square himself in front of you on the narrow pavement and beg for alms. If you had no change and said, “Perdon, por Dios,“ he would scowl and let you pass; but if you looked annoyed or disgusted, or ordered him out of the way, or pushed by without a word, he would glare at you with a concentrated rage which seemed to say, “Oh, to have you down at my mercy, bound hand and foot, a sharp knife in my hand!” And this would be followed by a blast of the most horrible language.
One day I witnessed a very strange thing, the action of a dog, by the waterside. It was evening and the beach was forsaken; cartmen, fishermen, boatmen all gone, and I was the only idler left on the rocks; but the tide was coming in, rolling quite big waves on to the rocks, and the novel sight of the waves, the freshness, the joy of it, kept me at that spot, standing on one of the outermost rocks not yet washed over by the water. By and by a gentleman, followed by a big dog, came down on to the beach and stood at a distance of forty or fifty yards from me, while the dog bounded forward over the flat, slippery rocks and through pools of water until he came to my side, and sitting on the edge of the rock began gazing intently down at the water. He was a big, shaggy, round-headed animal, with a greyish coat with some patches of light reddish colour on it; what his breed was I cannot say, but he looked somewhat like a sheep-dog or an otter-hound. Suddenly he plunged in, quite disappearing from sight, but quickly reappeared with a big shad of about three and a half or four pounds’ weight in his jaws. Climbing on to the rock he dropped the fish, which he did not appear to have injured much, as it began floundering about in an exceedingly lively manner. I was astonished and looked back at the dog’s master; but there he stood in the same place, smoking and paying no attention to what his animal was doing. Again the dog plunged in and brought out a second big fish and dropped it on the flat rock, and again and again he dived, until there were five big shads all floundering about on the wet rock and likely soon to be washed back into the water. The shad is a common fish in the Plata and the best to eat of all its fishes, resembling the salmon in its rich flavour, and is eagerly watched for when it comes up from the sea by the Buenos Ayres fishermen, just as our fishermen watch for mackerel on our coasts. But on this evening the beach was deserted by every one, watchers included, and the fish came and swarmed along the rocks, and there was no one to catch them — not even some poor hungry idler to pounce upon and carry off the five fishes the dog had captured. One by one I saw them washed back into the water, and presently the dog, hearing his master whistling to him, bounded away.
For many years after this incident I failed to find any one who had even seen or heard of a dog catching fish. Eventually, in reading I met with an account of fishing-dogs in Newfoundland and other countries.
One other strange adventure met with on the front remains to be told. It was about eleven o’clock in the morning and I was on the parade, walking north, pausing from time to time to look over the sea-wall to watch the flocks of small birds that came to feed on the beach below. Presently my attention was drawn to a young man walking on before me, pausing and peering too from time to time over the wall, and when he did so throwing something at the small birds. I ran on and overtook him, and was rather taken aback at his wonderfully fine appearance. He was like one of the gentlemen of the gathering before the church, described a few pages back, and wore a silk hat and fashionable black coat and trousers and scarlet silk waistcoat; he was also a remarkably handsome young gentleman, with a golden-brown curly beard and moustache and dark liquid eyes that studied my face with a half-amused curiosity when I looked up at him. In one hand he carried a washleather bag by its handle, and holding a pebble in his right hand he watched the birds, the small parties of crested song sparrows, yellow house sparrows, siskins, field finches, and other kinds, and from time to time he would hurl a pebble at the bird he had singled out forty yards down below us on the rocks. I did not see him actually hit a bird, but his precision was amazing, for almost invariably the missile, thrown from such a distance at so minute an object, appeared to graze the feathers and to miss killing by but a fraction of an inch.
I followed him for some distance, my wonder and curiosity growing every minute to see such a superior-looking person engaged in such a pastime. For it is a fact that the natives do not persecute small birds. On the contrary, they despise the aliens in the land who shoot and trap them. Besides, if he wanted small birds for any purpose, why did he try to get them by throwing pebbles at them? As he did not order me off, but looked in a kindly way at me every little while, with a slight smile on his face, I at length ventured to tell him that he would never get a bird that way — that it would be impossible at that distance to hit one with a small pebble. “Oh, no, not impossible,” he returned, smiling and walking on, still with an eye on the rocks. “Well, you haven’t hit one yet,” I was bold enough to say, and at that he stopped, and putting his finger and thumb in his waistcoat pocket he pulled out a dead male siskin and put it in my hands.
This was the bird called “goldfinch” by the English resident in La Plata, and to the Spanish it is also goldfinch; it is, however, a siskin, Chrysomitris magellanica, and has a velvet-black head, the rest of its plumage being black, green, and shining yellow. It was one of my best-loved birds, but I had never had one in my hand, dead or alive, before, and now its wonderful unimagined loveliness, its graceful form, and the exquisitely pure flower-like yellow hue affected me with a delight so keen that I could hardly keep from tears.
After gloating a few moments over it, touching it with my finger-tips and opening the little black and gold wings, I looked up pleadingly and begged him to let me keep it. He smiled and shook his head: he would not waste his breath talking; all his energy was to be spent in hurling pebbles at other lovely little birds.
“Oh, senor, will you not give it to me?” I pleaded still; and then, with sudden hope, “Are you going to sell it?”
He laughed, and taking it from my hand put it back in his waistcoat pocket; then, with a pleasant smile and a nod to say that the interview was now over, he went on his way.
Standing on the spot where he left me, and still bitterly regretting that I had failed to get the bird, I watched him until he disappeared from sight in the distance, walking towards the suburb of Palermo; and a mystery he remains to this day, the one and only Argentine gentleman, a citizen of the Athens of South America, amusing himself by killing little birds with pebbles. But I do not know that it was an amusement. He had perhaps in some wild moment made a vow to kill so many siskins in that way, or a bet to prove his skill in throwing a pebble; or he might have been practising a cure for some mysterious deadly malady, prescribed by some wandering physician from Bagdad or Ispaham; or, more probable still, some heartless, soulless woman he was in love with had imposed this fantastical task on him.
Perhaps the most wonderful thing I saw during that first eventful visit to the capital was the famed Don Eusebio, the court jester or fool of the President or Dictator Rosas, the “Nero of South America,” who lived in his palace at Palermo, just outside the city. I had been sent with my sisters and little brother to spend the day at the house of an Anglo–Argentine family in another part of the town, and we were in the large courtyard playing with the children of the house when some one opened a window above us and called out, “Don Eusebio!” That conveyed nothing to me, but the little boys of the house knew what it meant; it meant that if we went quickly out to the street we might catch a glimpse of the great man in all his glory. At all events, they jumped up, flinging their toys away, and rushed to the street door, and we after them. Coming out we found quite a crowd of lookers-on, and then down the street, in his general’s dress — for it was one of the Dictator’s little jokes to make his fool a general — all scarlet, with a big scarlet three-cornered hat surmounted by an immense aigrette of scarlet plumes, came Don Eusebio. He marched along with tremendous dignity, his sword at his side, and twelve soldiers, also in scarlet, his bodyguard, walking six on each side of him with drawn swords in their hands.
We gazed with joyful excitement at this splendid spectacle, and it made it all the more thrilling when one of the boys whispered in my ear that if any person in the crowd laughed or made any insulting or rude remark, he would be instantly cut to pieces by the guard. And they looked truculent enough for anything.
The great Rosas himself I did not see, but it was something to have had this momentary sight of General Eusebio, his fool, on the eve of his fall after a reign of over twenty years, during which he proved himself one of the bloodiest as well as the most original-minded of the Caudillos and Dictators, and altogether, perhaps, the greatest of those who have climbed into power in this continent of republics and revolutions.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55