The portraits in our drawing-room — The Dictator Rosas who was like an Englishman — The strange face of his wife, Encarnacion — The traitor Urquiza — The Minister of War, his peacocks, and his son — Home again from the city — The War deprives us of our playmate — Natalia, our shepherd’s wife — Her son, Medardo — The Alcalde our grand old man — Battle of Monte Caseros — The defeated army — Demands for fresh horses — In peril — My father’s shining defects — His pleasure in a thunder storm — A childlike trust in his fellow-men — Soldiers turn upon their officer — A refugee given up and murdered — Our Alcalde again — On cutting throats — Ferocity and cynicism — Native blood-lust and its effect on a boy’s mind — Feeling about Rosas — A bird poem or tale — Vain search for lost poem and story of its authorship — The Dictator’s daughter — Time, the old god.
At the end of the last chapter, when describing my one sight of the famous jester, Don Eusebio, in his glory, attended by a body-guard with drawn swords who were ready to cut down any one of the spectators who failed to remove his hat or laughed at the show, I said it was on the eve of the fall of the President of the Republic, or Dictator, “the Tyrant,” as he was called by his adversaries when they didn’t call him the “Nero of South America” or the “Tiger of Palermo” — this being the name of a park on the north side of Buenos Ayres where Rosas lived in a white stuccoed house called his palace.
At that time the portrait, in colours, of the great man occupied the post of honour above the mantelpiece in our sala, or drawing-room — the picture of a man with fine clear-cut regular features, light reddish-brown hair and side-whiskers, and blue eyes; he was sometimes called “Englishman” on account of his regular features and blonde complexion. That picture of a stern handsome face, with flags and cannon and olive-branch — the arms of the republic — in its heavy gold frame, was one of the principal ornaments of the room, and my father was proud of it, since he was, for reasons to be stated by and by, a great admirer of Rosas, an out-and-out Rosista, as the loyal ones were called. This portrait was flanked by two others; one of Dona Encarnacion, the wife, long dead, of Rosas; a handsome, proud-looking young woman with a vast amount of black hair piled up on her head in a fantastic fashion, surmounted by a large tortoiseshell comb. I remember that as small children we used to look with a queer, almost uncanny sort of feeling at this face under its pile of black hair, because it was handsome but not sweet nor gentle, and because she was dead and had died long ago; yet it was like the picture of one alive when we looked at it, and those black unloving eyes gazed straight back into ours. Why did those eyes, unless they moved, which they didn’t, always look back into ours no matter in what part of the room we stood? — a perpetual puzzle to our childish uninformed brains.
On the other side was the repellent, truculent countenance of the Captain–General Urquiza, who was the Dictator’s right-hand man, a ferocious cut-throat if ever there was one, who had upheld his authority for many years in the rebellious upper provinces, but who had just now raised the standard of revolt against him and in a little while, with the aid of a Brazilian army, would succeed in overthrowing him.
The central portrait inspired us with a kind of awe and reverential feeling, since even as small children we were made to know that he was the greatest man in the republic, that he had unlimited power over all men’s lives and fortunes and was terrible in his anger against evil-doers, especially those who rebelled against his authority.
Two more portraits of the famous men of the republic of that date adorned the same wall. Next to Urquiza was General Oribe, commander of the army sent by Rosas against Montevideo, which maintained the siege of that city for the space of ten years. On the other side, next to Dona Encarnacion, was the portrait of the Minister of War, a face which had no attraction for us children, as it was not coloured like that of the Dictator, nor had any romance or mystery in it like that of his dead wife; yet it served to bring all these pictured people into our actual world — to make us realize that they were the counterfeit presentments of real men and women. For it happened that this same Minister of War was in a way a neighbour of ours, as he owned an estancia, which he sometimes visited, about three leagues from us, on that part of the plain to the east of our place which I have described in a former chapter as being covered with a dense growth of the bluish-grey wild artichoke, the cardo de Castilla, as it is called in the vernacular. Like most of the estancia houses of that day it was a long low building of brick with thatched roof, surrounded by an enclosed quinta, or plantation, with rows of century-old Lombardy poplars conspicuous at a great distance, and many old acacia, peach, quince, and cherry trees. It was a cattle and horse-breeding establishment, but the beasts were of less account to the owner than his peacocks, a fowl for which he had so great a predilection that he could not have too many of them; he was always buying more peacocks to send out to the estate, and they multiplied until the whole place swarmed with them. And he wanted them all for himself, so that it was forbidden to sell or give even an egg away. The place was in the charge of a major-domo, a good-natured fellow, and when he discovered that we liked peacocks’ feathers for decorative purposes in the house, he made it a custom to send us each year at the moulting-time large bundles, whole armfuls, of feathers.
Another curious thing in the estancia was a large room set apart for the display of trophies sent from Buenos Ayres by the Minister’s eldest son. I have already given an account of a favourite pastime of the young gentlemen of the capital — that of giving battle to the night-watchmen and wresting their staffs and lanterns from them. Our Minister’s heir was a leader in this sport, and from time to time sent consignments of his trophies to the country place, where the walls of the room were covered with staffs and festoons of lanterns.
Once or twice as a small boy I had the privilege of meeting this young gentleman and looked at him with an intense curiosity which has served to keep his image in my mind till now. His figure was slender and graceful, his features good, and he had a rather long Spanish face; his eyes were grey-blue, and his hair and moustache a reddish golden-brown. It was a handsome face, but with a curiously repelling, impatient, reckless, almost devilish expression.
I was at home again, back in the plantation among my beloved birds, glad to escape from the noisy dusty city into the sweet green silences, with the great green plain glittering with the false water of the mirage spreading around our shady oasis, and the fact that war, which for the short period of my own little life and for many long years before I was born, had not visited our province, thanks to Rosas the Tyrant, the man of blood and iron, had now come to us did not make the sunshine less sweet and pleasant to behold. Our elders, it is true, showed anxious faces, but they were often anxious about matters which did not affect us children, and therefore didn’t matter. But by and by even we little ones were made to realize that there was a trouble in the land which touched us too, since it deprived us of the companionship of the native boy who was our particular friend and guardian during our early horseback rambles on the plain. This boy, Medardo, or Dardo, was the fifteen-years-old son — illegitimate of course — of the native woman our English shepherd had made his wife. Why he had done so was a perpetual mystery and marvel to every one on account of her person and temper. The very thought of this poor Natalia, or Dona Nata as she was called, long dead and turned to dust in that far pampa, troubles my spirit even now and gives me the uncomfortable feeling that in putting her portrait on this paper I am doing a mean thing.
She was an excessively lean creature, careless, and even dirty in her person, with slippers but no stockings on her feet, an old dirty gown of a coarse blue cotton stuff and a large coloured cotton handkerchief or piece of calico wound turban-wise about her head. She was of a yellowish parchment colour, the skin tight-drawn over the small bony aquiline features, and it would have seemed like the face of a corpse or mummy but for the deeply-sunken jet-black eyes burning with a troubled fire in their sockets. There was a tremor and strangely pathetic note in her thin high-pitched voice, as of a woman speaking with effort between half-suppressed sobs, or like the mournful cry of some wild bird of the marshes. Voice and face were true indications of her anxious mind. She was in a perpetual state of worry over some trifling matter, and when a real trouble came, as when our flock “got mixed” with a neighbour’s flock and four or five thousand sheep had to be parted, sheep by sheep, according to their ear-marks, or when her husband came home drunk and tumbled off his horse at the door instead of dismounting in the usual manner, she would be almost out of her mind and wring her hands and shriek and cry out that such conduct would not be endured by his long-suffering master, and they would no longer have a roof over their heads!
Poor anxious-minded Nata, who moved us both to pity and repulsion, it was impossible not to admire her efforts to keep her stolid inarticulate husband in the right path and her intense wild animal-like love of her children — the three dirty-faced English-looking offspring of her strange marriage, and Dardo, her firstborn, the son of the wind. He, too, was an interesting person; small or short for his years, he was thick and had a curiously solid mature appearance, with a round head, wide open, startlingly bright eyes, and aquiline features which gave him a resemblance to a sparrow-hawk. He was mature in mind, too, and had all the horse lore of the seasoned gaucho, and at the same time he was like a child in his love of fun and play, and wanted nothing better than to serve us as a perpetual playmate. But he had his work, which was to look after the flock when the shepherd’s services were required elsewhere; an easy task for him on his horse, especially in summer when for long hours the sheep would stand motionless on the plain. Dardo, who was teaching us to swim, would then invite us to go to the river — to one of two streams within half an hour’s ride from home, where there were good bathing-pools! but always before starting he would have to go and ask his mother’s consent. Mounting my pony I would follow him to the puesto or shepherd’s ranche, only to be denied permission: “No, you are not to go to-day: you must not think of such a thing. I forbid you to take the boys to the river this day!”
Then Dardo, turning his horse’s head, would exclaim, “Oh, caram-bam-bam-ba!” And she, seeing him going, would rush out after us, shrieking, “Don’t caram-bam-bam-ba me! You are not to go to the river this day — I forbid it! I know if you go to the river this day there will be a terrible calamity! Listen to me, Dardo, rebel, devil that you are, you shall not go bathing to-day!” And the cries would continue until, breaking into a gallop, we would quickly be out of earshot. Then Dardo would say, “Now we’ll go back to the house for the others and go to the river. You see, she made me kneel before the crucifix and promise never to take you to bathe without asking her consent. And that’s all I’ve got to do; I never promised to obey her commands, so it’s all right.”
These pleasant adventures with Dardo on the plain were suddenly put a stop to by the war. One morning a number of persons on foot and on horseback were seen coming to us over the green plain from the shepherd’s ranche, and as they drew nearer we recognized our old Alcalde on his horse as the leader of the procession, and behind him walked Dona Nata, holding her son by the hand; then followed others on foot, and behind them all rode four old gauchos, the Alcalde’s henchmen, wearing their swords.
What matter of tremendous importance had brought this crowd to our house? The Alcalde, Don Amaro Avalos, was not only the representative of the “authorities” in our parts — police officer, petty magistrate of sorts, and several other things besides — but a grand old man in himself, and he looms large in memory among the old gaucho patriarchs in our neighbourhood. He was a big man, about six feet high, exceedingly dignified in manner, his long hair and beard of a silvery whiteness; he wore the gaucho costume with a great profusion of silver ornaments, including ponderous silver spurs weighing about four pounds, and heavy silver whip-handle. As a rule he rode on a big black horse which admirably suited his figure and the scarlet colour and silver of his costume.
On arrival Don Amaro was conducted to the drawing-room, followed by all the others; and when all were seated, including the four old gauchos wearing swords, the Alcalde addressed my parents and informed them of the object of the visit. He had received an imperative order from his superiors, he said, to take at once and send to headquarters twelve more young men as recruits for the army from his small section of the district. Now most of the young men had already been taken, or had disappeared from the neighbourhood in order to avoid service, and to make up this last twelve he had even to take boys of the age of this one, and Medardo would have to go. But this woman would not have her boy taken, and after spending many words in trying to convince her that she must submit he had at last, to satisfy her, consented to accompany her to her master’s house to discuss the matter again in her master and mistress’s presence.
It was a long speech, pronounced with great dignity; then, almost before it finished, the distracted mother jumped up and threw herself on her knees before my parents, and in her wild tremulous voice began crying to them, imploring them to have compassion on her and help her to save her boy from such a dreadful destiny. What would he be, she cried, a boy of his tender years dragged from his home, from his mother’s care, and thrown among a crowd of old hardened soldiers, and of evil-minded men — murderers, robbers, and criminals of all descriptions drawn from all the prisons of the land to serve in the army!
It was dreadful to see her on her knees wringing her hands, and to listen to her wild lamentable cries; and again and again while the matter was being discussed between the old Alcalde and my parents, she would break out and plead with such passion and despair in her voice and words, that all the people in the room were affected to tears. She was like some wild animal trying to save her offspring from the hunters. Never, exclaimed my mother, when the struggle was over, had she passed so painful, so terrible, an hour! And the struggle had all been in vain, and Dardo was taken from us.
One morning, some weeks later, the dull roar from distant big guns came to our ears, and we were told that a great battle was being fought, that Rosas himself was at the head of his army — a poor little force of 25,000 men got together in hot haste to oppose a mixed Argentine and Brazilian force of about 40,000 men commanded by the traitor Urquiza. During several hours of that anxious day the dull, heavy sound of firing continued and was like distant thunder: then in the evening came the tidings of the overthrow of the defending army, and of the march of the enemy on Buenos Ayres city! On the following day, from dawn to dark, we were in the midst of an incessant stream of the defeated men, flying to the south, in small parties of two or three to half a dozen men, with some larger bands, all in their scarlet uniforms and armed with lances and carbines and broadswords, many of the bands driving large numbers of horses before them.
My father was warned by the neighbours that we were in great danger, since these men were now lawless and would not hesitate to plunder and kill in their retreat, and that all riding-horses would certainly be seized by them. As a precaution he had the horses driven in and concealed in the plantation, and that was all he would do. “Oh no,” he said, with a laugh, “they won’t hurt us,” and so we were all out and about all day with the front gate and all doors and windows standing open. From time to time a band on tired horses rode to the gate and, without dismounting, shouted a demand for fresh horses. In every case he went out and talked to them, always with a smiling, pleasant face, and after assuring them that he had no horses for them they slowly and reluctantly took their departure.
About three o’clock in the afternoon, the hottest hour of the day, a troop of ten men rode up at a gallop, raising a great cloud of dust, and coming in at the gate drew rein before the verandah. My father as usual went out to meet them, whereupon they demanded fresh horses in loud menacing voices.
Indoors we were all gathered in the large sitting-room, waiting the upshot in a state of intense anxiety, for no preparations had been made and no means of defence existed in the event of a sudden attack on the house. We watched the proceedings from the interior, which was too much in shadow for our dangerous visitors to see that they were only women and children there and one man, a visitor, who had withdrawn to the further end of the room and sat leaning back in an easy chair, trembling and white as a corpse, with a naked sword in his hand. He explained to us afterwards, when the danger was all over, that fortunately he was an excellent swordsman, and that having found the weapon in the room, he had resolved to give a good account of the ten ruffians if they had made a rush to get in.
My father replied to these men as he had done to the others, assuring them that he had no horses to give them. Meanwhile we who were indoors all noticed that one of the ten men was an officer, a beardless young man of about twenty-one or two, with a singularly engaging face. He took no part in the proceedings, but sat silent on his horse, watching the others with a peculiar expression, half contemptuous and half anxious, on his countenance. And he alone was unarmed, a circumstance which struck us as very strange. The others were all old veterans, middle-aged and oldish men with grizzled beards, all in scarlet jacket and scarlet chiripa and a scarlet cap of the quaint form then worn, shaped like a boat turned upside down, with a horn-like peak in front, and beneath the peak a brass plate on which was the number of the regiment.
The men appeared surprised at the refusal of horses, and stated plainly that they would not accept it; at which my father shook his head and smiled. One of the men then asked for water to quench his thirst. Some one in the house then took out a large jug of cold water, and my father taking it handed it up to the man; he drank, then passed the jug on to the other thirsty ones, and after going its rounds the jug was handed back and the demand for fresh horses renewed in menacing tones. There was some water left in the jug, and my father began pouring it out in a thin stream, making little circles and figures on the dry dusty ground, then once more shook his head and smiled very pleasantly on them. Then one of the men, fixing his eyes on my father’s face, bent forward and suddenly struck his hand violently on the hilt of his broadsword and, rattling the weapon, half drew it from its sheath. This nerve-trying experiment was a complete failure, its only effect being to make my father smile up at the man even more pleasantly than before, as if the little practical joke had greatly amused him.
The strange thing was that my father was not playing a part — that it was his nature to act in just that way. It is a curious thing to say of any person that his highest or most shining qualities were nothing but defects, since, apart from these same singular qualities, he was just an ordinary person with nothing to distinguish him from his neighbours, excepting perhaps that he was not anxious to get rich and was more neighbourly or more brotherly towards his fellows than most men. The sense of danger, the instinct of self-preservation supposed to be universal, was not in him, and there were occasions when this extraordinary defect produced the keenest distress in my mother. In hot summers we were subject to thunderstorms of an amazing violence, and at such times, when thunder and lightning were nearest together and most terrifying to everybody else, he would stand out of doors gazing calmly up at the sky as if the blinding flashes and world-shaking thunder-crashes had some soothing effect, like music, on his mind. One day, just before noon, it was reported by one of the men that the saddle-horses could not be found, and my father, with his spy-glass in his hand, went out and ran up the wooden stairs to the mirador or look-out constructed at the top of the big barn-like building used for storing wool. The mirador was so high that standing on it one was able to see even over the tops of the tall plantation trees, and to protect the looker-out there was a high wooden railing round it, and against this the tall flag-staff was fastened. When my father went up to the look-out a terribly violent thunderstorm was just bursting on us. The dazzling, almost continuous lightning appeared to be not only in the black cloud over the house but all round us, and crash quickly followed crash, making the doors and windows rattle in their frames, while there high above us in the very midst of the awful tumult stood my father calm as ever. Not satisfied that he was high enough on the floor of the look-out he had got up on the topmost rail, and standing on it, with his back against the tall pole, he surveyed the open plain all round through his spy-glass in search of the lost horses. I remember that indoors my mother with white terror-stricken face stood gazing out at him, and that the whole house was in a state of terror, expecting every moment to see him struck by lightning and hurled down to the earth below.
A second and in its results a more disastrous shining quality was a childlike trust in the absolute good faith of every person with whom he came into business relations. Things being what they are this inevitably led to his ruin.
To return to our unwelcome visitors. On this occasion my father’s perfectly cool smiling demeanour, resulting from his foolhardiness, served him and the house well: it deceived them, for they could not believe that he would have acted in that way if they had not been watched by men with rifles in their hands from the interior who would open fire on the least hostile movement on their part.
Suddenly the scowling spokesman of the troop, with a shouted “Vamos!” turned his horse’s head and, followed by all the others, rode out and broke into a gallop. We too then hurried out, and from the screen of poplar and black acacia trees growing at the side of the moat, watched their movements, and saw, when they had got away a few hundred yards from the gate, the young unarmed officer break away from them and start off at the greatest speed he could get out of his horse. The others quickly gave chase and at length disappeared from sight in the direction of the Alcalde’s or local petty magistrate’s house, about a mile and a half away. It was a long low thatched ranch without trees, and could not be seen from our house as it stood behind a marshy lake overgrown with all bulrushes.
While we were straining our eyes to see the result of the chase, and after the hunted man and his pursuers had vanished from sight among the herds of cattle and horses grazing on the plain, the tragedy was being carried out in exceedingly painful circumstances. The young officer, whose home was more than a day’s journey from our district, had visited the neighbourhood on a former occasion and remembered that he had relations in it; and when he broke away from the men, divining that it was their intention to murder him, he made for the old Alcalde’s house. He succeeded in keeping ahead of his pursuers until he arrived at the gate, and throwing himself from his horse and rushing into the house, and finding the old Alcalde surrounded by the women of the house, addressed him as uncle and claimed his protection. The Alcalde was not, strictly speaking, his uncle but was his mother’s first cousin. It was an awful moment: the nine armed ruffians were already standing outside, shouting to the owner of the place to give them up their prisoner, and threatening to burn down the house and kill all the inmates if he refused. The old Alcalde stood in the middle of the room, surrounded by a crowd of women and children, his own two handsome daughters, aged about twenty and twenty-two respectively, among them, fainting with terror and crying for him to save them, while the young officer on his knees implored him for the sake of his mother’s memory, and of the Mother of God and of all he held sacred, to refuse to give him up to be slaughtered.
The old man was not equal to the situation: he trembled and sobbed with anguish, and at last faltered out that he could not protect him — that he must save his own daughters and the wives and children of his neighbours who had sought refuge in his house. The men outside, hearing how the argument was going, came to the door, and finally seizing the young man by the arm led him out and made him mount his horse again and ride with them. They rode back the way they had gone for half a mile towards our house, then pulled him off his horse and cut his throat.
On the following day a mulatto boy who looked after the flock and went on errands for the Alcalde, came to me and said that if I would mount my pony and go with him he would show me something. It was not seldom this same little fellow came to me to offer to show me something, and it usually turned out to be a bird’s nest, an object which keenly interested us both. I gladly mounted my pony and followed. The broken army had ceased passing our way by now, and it was peaceful and safe once more on the great plain. We rode about a mile, and he then pulled up his horse and pointed to the turf at our feet, where I saw a great stain of blood on the short dry grass. Here, he told me, was where they had cut the young officer’s throat: the body had been taken by the Alcalde to his house, where it had been lying since the evening before, and it would be taken for burial next day to our nearest village, about eight miles distant.
The murder was the talk of the place for some days, chiefly on account of the painful facts of the case — that the old Alcalde, who was respected and even loved by every one, should have failed in so pitiful a way to make any attempt at saving his young relation. But the mere fact that the soldiers had cut the throat of their officer surprised no one; it was a common thing in the case of a defeat in those days for the men to turn upon and murder their officers. Nor was throat-cutting a mere custom or convention: to the old soldier it was the only satisfactory way of finishing off your adversary, or prisoner of war, or your officer who had been your tyrant, on the day of defeat. Their feeling was similar to that of the man who is inspired by the hunting instinct in its primitive form, as described by Richard Jefferies. To kill the creatures with bullets at a distance was no satisfaction to him: he must with his own hands drive the shaft into the quivering flesh — he must feel its quivering and see the blood gush up beneath his hand. One smiles at a vision of the gentle Richard Jefferies slaughtering wild cattle in the palaeolithic way, but that feeling and desire which he describes with such passion in his Story of My Heart, that survival of the past, is not uncommon in the hearts of hunters, and if we were ever to drop out of our civilization I fancy we should return rather joyfully to the primitive method. And so in those dark times in the Argentine Republic when, during half a century of civil strife which followed on casting off the Spanish “yoke,” as it was called, the people of the plains had developed an amazing ferocity, they loved to kill a man not with a bullet but in a manner to make them know and feel that they were really and truly killing.
As a child those dreadful deeds did not impress me, since I did not witness them myself, and after looking at that stain of blood on the grass the subject faded out of my mind. But as time went on and I heard more about this painful subject I began to realize what it meant. The full horror of it came only a few years later, when I was big enough to go about to the native houses and among the gauchos in their gatherings, at cattle-partings and brandings, races, and on other occasions. I listened to the conversation of groups of men whose lives had been mostly spent in the army, as a rule in guerilla warfare, and the talk turned with surprising frequency to the subject of cutting throats. Not to waste powder on prisoners was an unwritten law of the Argentine army at that period, and the veteran gaucho clever with the knife took delight in obeying it. It always came as a relief, I heard them say, to have as victim a young man with a good neck after an experience of tough, scraggy old throats: with a person of that sort they were in no hurry to finish the business; it was performed in a leisurely, loving way. Darwin, writing in praise of the gaucho in his Voyage of a Naturalist, says that if a gaucho cuts your throat he does it like a gentleman: even as a small boy I knew better — that he did his business rather like a hellish creature revelling in his cruelty. He would listen to all his captive could say to soften his heart — all his heartrending prayers and pleadings; and would reply: “Ah, friend,” — or little friend, or brother — “your words pierce me to the heart and I would gladly spare you for the sake of that poor mother of yours who fed you with her milk, and for your own sake too, since in this short time I have conceived a great friendship towards you; but your beautiful neck is your undoing, for how could I possibly deny myself the pleasure of cutting such a throat — so shapely, so smooth and soft and so white! Think of the sight of warm red blood gushing from that white column!” And so on, with wavings of the steel blade before the captive’s eyes, until the end.
When I heard them relate such things — and I am quoting their very words, remembered all these years only too well — laughingly, gloating over such memories, such a loathing and hatred possessed me that ever afterwards the very sight of these men was enough to produce a sensation of nausea, just as when in the dog days one inadvertently rides too near the putrid carcass of some large beast on the plain.
As I have said, all this feeling about throat-cutting and the power to realize and visualize it, came to me by degrees long after the sight of a blood-stain on the turf near our home; and in like manner the significance of the tyrant’s fall and the mighty changes it brought about in the land only came to me long after the event. People were in perpetual conflict about the character of the great man. He was abhorred by many, perhaps by most; others were on his side even for years after he had vanished from their ken, and among these were most of the English residents of the country, my father among them. Quite naturally I followed my father and came to believe that all the bloodshed during a quarter of a century, all the crimes and cruelties practised by Rosas, were not like the crimes committed by a private person, but were all for the good of the country, with the result that in Buenos Ayres and throughout our province there had been a long period of peace and prosperity, and that all this ended with his fall and was succeeded by years of fresh revolutionary outbreaks and bloodshed and anarchy. Another thing about Rosas which made me ready to fall in with my father’s high opinion of him was the number of stories about him which appealed to my childish imagination. Many of these related to his adventures when he would disguise himself as a person of humble status and prowl about the city by night, especially in the squalid quarters, where he would make the acquaintance of the very poor in their hovels. Most of these stories were probably inventions and need not be told here; but there was one which I must say something about because it is a bird story and greatly excited my boyish interest.
I was often asked by our gaucho neighbours when I talked with them about birds — and they all knew that that subject interested me above all others — if I had ever heard el canto, or el cuento del Bien-te-veo. That is to say, the ballad or tale of the Bien-te-veo — a species of tyrant-bird quite common in the country, with a brown back and sulphur-yellow under parts, a crest on its head, and face barred with black and white. It is a little larger than our butcher-bird and, like it, is partly rapacious in its habits. The barred face and long kingfisher-like beak give it a peculiarly knowing or cunning look, and the effect is heightened by the long trisyllabic call constantly uttered by the bird, from which it derives its name of Bien-te-veo, which means I-can-see-you. He is always letting you know that he is there, that he has got his eye on you, so that you had better be careful about your actions.
The Bien-te-veo, I need hardly say, was one of my feathered favourites, and I begged my gaucho friends to tell me this cuento, but although I met scores of men who had heard it, not one remembered it: they could only say that it was very long — very few persons could remember such a long story; and I further gathered that it was a sort of history of the bird’s life and his adventures among the other birds; that the Bien-te-veo was always doing clever naughty things and getting into trouble, but invariably escaping the penalty. From all I could hear it was a tale of the Reynard the Fox order, or like the tales told by the gauchos of the armadillo and how that quaint little beast always managed to fool his fellow-animals, especially the fox, who regarded himself as the cleverest of all the beasts and who looked on his honest, dull-witted neighbour the armadillo as a born fool. Old gauchos used to tell me that twenty or more years ago one often met with a reciter of ballads who could relate the whole story of the Bien-te-veo. Good reciters were common enough in my time: at dances it was always possible to find one or two to amuse the company with long poems and ballads in the intervals of dancing, and first and last I questioned many who had this talent, but failed to find one who knew the famous bird-ballad, and in the end I gave up the quest.
The story invariably told was that a man convicted of some serious crime and condemned to suffer the last penalty, and left, as the custom then was, for long months in the gaol in Buenos Ayres, amused himself by composing the story of the Bien-te-veo, and thinking well of it he made a present of the manuscript to the gaoler in acknowledgment of some kindness he had received from that person. The condemned man had no money and no friends to interest themselves on his behalf; but it was not the custom at that time to execute a criminal as soon as he was condemned. The prison authorities preferred to wait until there were a dozen or so to execute; these would then be taken out, ranged against a wall of the prison, opposite a file of soldiers with muskets in their hands, and shot, the soldiers after the first discharge reloading their weapons and going up to the fallen men to finish off those who were still kicking. This was the prospect our prisoner had to look forward to. Meanwhile his ballad was being circulated and read with immense delight by various persons in authority, and one of these who was privileged to approach the Dictator, thinking it would afford him a little amusement, took the ballad and read it to him. Rosas was so pleased with it that he pardoned the condemned man and ordered his liberation.
All this, I conjectured, must have happened at least twenty years before I was born. I also concluded that the ballad had never been printed, otherwise I would most probably have found it; but some copies in writing had evidently been made and it had become a favourite composition with the reciters at festive gatherings, but had now gone out and was hopelessly lost.
These, as I have already intimated, were but the little things that touched a child’s fancy; there was another romantic circumstance in the life of Rosas which appealed to everybody, adult as well as child.
He was the father of Dona Manuela, known by the affectionate diminutive, Manuelita, throughout the land, and loved and admired by all, even by her father’s enemies, for her compassionate disposition. Perhaps she was the one being in the world for whom he, a widower and lonely man, cherished a great tenderness. It is certain that her power over him was very great and that many lives that would have been taken for State reasons were saved by her interposition. It was a beautiful and fearful part that she, a girl, was called on to play on that dreadful stage; and very naturally it was said that she, who was the very spirit of mercy incarnate, could not have acted as the loving, devoted daughter to one who was the monster of cruelty his enemies proclaimed him to be.
Here, in conclusion to this chapter, I had intended to introduce a few sober reflections on the character of Rosas — certainly the greatest and most interesting of all the South America Caudillos, or leaders, who rose to absolute power during the long stormy period that followed on the war of independence — reflections which came to me later, in my teens, when I began to think for myself and form my own judgments. This I now perceive would be a mistake, if not an impertinence, since I have not the temper of mind for such exercises and should give too much importance to certain singular acts on the Dictator’s part which others would perhaps regard as political errors, or due to sudden fits of passion or petulance rather than as crimes. And some of his acts are inexplicable, as for instance the public execution in the interests of religion and morality of a charming young lady of good family and her lover, the handsome young priest who had captivated the town with his eloquence. Why he did it will remain a puzzle for ever. There were many other acts which to foreigners and to those born in later times might seem the result of insanity, but which were really the outcome of a peculiar, sardonic, and somewhat primitive sense of humour on his part which appeals powerfully to the men of the plains, the gauchos, among whom Rosas lived from boyhood, when he ran away from his father’s house, and by whose aid he eventually rose to supreme power.
All these things do not much affect the question of Rosas as a ruler and his place in history. Time, the old god, says the poet, invests all things with honour, and makes them white. The poet-prophet is not to be taken literally, but his words so undoubtedly contain a tremendous truth. And here, then, one may let the question rest. If after half a century, and more, the old god is still sitting, chin on hand, revolving this question, it would be as well to give him, say, another fifty years to make up his mind and pronounce a final judgment.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55