Part 4 out of 5
and go back to Satan, your master, and tell him from me to keep a
stricter watch on your movements; for why should the stench of purgatory
be brought to my nostrils before my time! And now, hateful ghost, what
more have you got to say to me?' At this speech the ghost shouted with
laughter, slapping its thighs, and doubling itself up with mirth. At
last, when it was able to speak, it said, 'Enough of this fooling,
Mariano. I did not intend frightening you so much; and it is no great
matter if I have laughed a little at you now, for you have often made
me cry. I stopped you because I had something important to say. Go to
my mother and tell her you have seen and spoken with me; tell her to
pay for another mass for my soul's repose, for after that I shall be
out of purgatory. If she has no money lend her a few dollars for the
mass, and I will repay you, old man, in another world.'
"This it said and vanished. I lifted my whip, but needed not to strike
my horse, for not a bird that has wings could fly faster than he now
flew with me on his back. No path was before me, nor did I know where
we were going. Through rushes and through thickets, over burrows of
wild animals, stones, rivers, marshes, we flew as if all the devils
that are on the earth and under it were at our heels; and when the
horse stopped it was at my own door. I stayed not to unsaddle him,
but, cutting the surcingle with my knife, left him to shake the saddle
off; then with the bridle I hammered on the door, shouting to my wife
to open. I heard her fumbling for the tinder-box. 'For the love of
Heaven, woman, strike no light,' I cried. '_Santa Barbara bendita_!
have you seen a ghost?' she exclaimed, opening to me. 'Yes,' I replied,
rushing in and bolting the door, 'and had you struck a light you would
now have been a widow.'
"For thus it is, sirs, the man who after seeing a ghost is confronted
with a light immediately drops down dead."
I made no sceptical remarks, and did not even shake my head. The
circumstances of the encounter were described by Mariano with such
graphic power and minuteness that it was impossible not to believe his
story. Yet some things in it afterwards struck me as somewhat absurd;
that straw hat, for instance, and it also seemed strange that a person
of Mula's disposition should have been so much improved in temper by
his sojourn in a warmer place.
"Talking of ghosts----" said Laralde, the other man--but proceeded no
further, for I interrupted him. Laralde was a short, broad-shouldered
man, with bow legs and bushy grey whiskers; he was called by his
familiars Lechuza (owl) on account of his immense, round, tawny-coloured
eyes, which had a tremendous staring power in them.
I thought we had had enough of the supernatural by this time.
"My friend," I said, "pardon me for interrupting you; but there will
be no sleep for us to-night if we have any more stories about spirits
from the other world."
"Talking of ghosts----" resumed Lechuza, without noticing my remark,
and this nettled me; so I cut in once more:
"I protest that we have heard quite enough about them," I said. "This
conversation was only to be about rare and curious things. Now, visitors
from the other world are very common. I put it to you, my friends--have
you not all seen more ghosts than lampalaguas drawing foxes with their
"I have seen that once only," said Rivarola gravely. "I have often
The others also confessed to having seen more than one ghost apiece.
Lechuza sat inattentive, smoking his cigarette, and when we had all
done speaking began again.
"Talking of ghosts----"
Nobody interrupted him this time, though he seemed to expect it, for
he made a long, deliberate pause.
"Talking of ghosts," he repeated, staring around him triumphantly, "I
once had an encounter with a strange being that was _not_ a ghost.
I was a young man then--young and full of the fire, strength, and
courage of youth--for what I am now going to relate happened over
twenty years ago. I had been playing cards at a friend's house, and
left it at midnight to ride to my father's house, a distance of five
leagues. I had quarrelled that evening and left a loser, burning with
anger against the man who had cheated and insulted me, and with whom
I was not allowed to fight. Vowing vengeance on him, I rode away at
a fast gallop; the night being serene, and almost as light as day, for
the moon was at its full. Suddenly I saw before me a huge man sitting
on a white horse, which stood perfectly motionless directly in my path.
I dashed on till I came near him, then shouted aloud. 'Out of my path,
friend, lest I ride over you'; for I was still raging in my heart.
"Seeing that he took no notice of my words, I dug my spurs into my
horse and hurled myself against him; then at the very moment my horse
struck his with a tremendous shock, I brought down my iron whip-handle
with all the force that was in me upon his head. The blow rang as if
I had struck upon an anvil, while at the same moment he, without
swerving, clutched my cloak with both hands. I could feel that they
were bony, hard hands, armed with long, crooked, sharp talons like an
eagle's, which pierced through my cloak into my flesh. Dropping my
whip, I seized him by the throat, which seemed scaly and hard, between
my hands, and thus, locked together in a desperate struggle, we swayed
this way and that, each trying to drag the other from his seat till
we came down together with a crash upon the earth. In a moment we were
disengaged and on our feet. Quick as lightning flashed out his long,
sharp weapon, and, finding I was too late to draw mine, I hurled
myselfagainst him, seizing his armed hand in both mine before he could
"For a few moments he stood still, glaring at me out of a pair of eyes
that shone like burning coals; then, mad with rage, he flung me off
my feet and whirled me round and round like a ball in a sling, and
finally cast me from him to a distance of a hundred yards, so great
was his strength. I was launched with tremendous force into the middle
of some thorny bushes, but had no sooner recovered from the shock than
out I burst with a yell of rage and charged him again. For, you will
hardly believe it, sirs, by some strange chance I had carried away his
weapon, firmly grasped in my hands. It was a heavy two-edged dagger,
sharp as a needle, and while I grasped the hilt I felt the strength
and fury of a thousand fighting-men in me. As I advanced he retreated
before me, until, seizing the topmost boughs of a great thorny bush,
he swung his body to one side and wrenched it out of the earth by the
roots. Swinging the bush with the rapidity of a whirlwind round his
head, he advanced against me and dealt a blow that would have crushed
me had it descended on me; but it fell too far, for I had dodged under
it to close with him, and delivered a stab with such power that the
long weapon was buried to its hilt in his bosom. He uttered a deafening
yell, and at the same moment a torrent of blood spouted forth, scalding
my face like boiling water, and drenching my clothes through to the
skin. For a moment I was blinded; but when I had dashed the blood from
my eyes and looked round he had vanished, horse and all.
"Then, mounting my horse, I rode home and told everyone what had
happened, showing the knife, which I still carried in my hand. Next
day all the neighbours gathered at my house, and we rode in company
to the spot where the fight had taken place. There we found the bush
torn up by the roots, and all the earth about it ploughed up where we
had fought. The ground was also dyed with blood for several yards
round, and where it had fallen the grass was withered up to the roots,
as if scorched with fire. We also picked up a cluster of hairs--long,
wiry, crooked hairs, barbed at the ends like fish-hooks; also three
or four scales like fish-scales, only rougher, and as large as doubloons.
The spot where the fight took place is now called _La Cañada del
Diablo,_ and I have heard that since that day the devil has never
appeared corporeally to fight any man in the Banda Orientál."
Lechuza's narrative gave great satisfaction. I said nothing, feeling
half stupid with amazement, for the man apparently told it in the full
conviction that it was true, while the other listeners appeared to
accept every word of it with the most implicit faith. I began to feel
very melancholy, for evidently they expected something from me now,
and what to tell them I knew not. It went against my conscience to be
the only liar amongst these exceedingly veracious Orientals, and so
I could not think of inventing anything.
"My friends," I began at length, "I am only a young man; also a native
of a country where marvellous things do not often happen, so that I
can tell you nothing to equal in interest the stories I have heard.
I can only relate a little incident which happened to me in my own
country before I left it. It is trivial, perhaps, but will lead me to
tell you something about London--that great city you have all heard
"Yes, we have heard of London; it is in England, I believe. Tell us
your story about London," said Blas encouragingly.
"I was very young--only fourteen years old," I continued, flattering
myself that my modest introduction had not been ineffective, "when one
evening I came to London from my home. It was in January, in the middle
of winter, and the whole country was white with snow."
"Pardon me, Captain," said Blas, "but you have got the cucumber by the
wrong end. We say that January is in summer."
"Not in my country, where the seasons are reversed," I said.
"When I rose next morning it was dark as night, for a black fog had
fallen upon the city."
"A black fog!" exclaimed Lechuza.
"Yes, a black fog that would last all days and make it darker than
night, for though the lamps were lighted in the streets they gave no
"Demons!" exclaimed Rivarola; "there is no water in the bucket. I must
go to the well for some or we shall have none to drink in the night."
"You might wait till I finish," I said.
"No, no, Captain," he returned. "Go on with your story; we must not
be without water." And, taking up the bucket, he trudged off.
"Finding it was going to be dark all day," I continued, "I determined
to go a little distance away, not out of London, you will understand,
but about three leagues from my hotel to a great hill, where I thought
the fog would not be so dark, and where there is a palace of glass."
"A palace of glass!" repeated Lechuza, with his immense round eyes
fixed sternly on me.
"Yes, a palace of glass--is there anything so wonderful in that?"
"Have you any tobacco in your pouch, Mariano?" said Blas.
"Pardon, Captain, for speaking, but the things you are telling require
a cigarette, and my pouch is empty."
"Very well, sirs, perhaps you will now allow me to proceed," I said,
beginning to feel rather vexed at these constant interruptions. "A
palace of glass large enough to hold all the people in this country."
"The Saints assist us! Your tobacco is dry as ashes, Mariano," exclaimed
"That is not strange," said the other, "for I have had it three days
in my pocket. Proceed, Captain. A palace of glass large enough to hold
all the people in the world. And then?"
"No, I shall not proceed," I returned, losing my temper. "It is plain
to see that you do not wish to hear my story. Still, sirs, from motives
of courtesy you might have disguised your want of interest in what I
was about to relate; for I have heard it said that the Orientals are
a polite people."
"There you are saying too much, my friend," broke in Lechuza. "Remember
that we were speaking of actual experiences, not inventing tales of
black fogs and glass palaces and men walking on their heads, and I
know not what other marvels."
"Do you know that what I am telling you is untrue?" I indignantly
"Surely, friend, you do not consider us such simple persons in the
Banda Orientál as not to know truth from fable?"
And this from the fellow who had just told us of his tragical encounter
with Apollyon, a yarn which quite put Bunyan's narrative in the shade!
It was useless talking; my irritation gave place to mirth, and,
stretching myself out on the grass, I roared with laughter. The more
I thought of Lechuza's stern rebuke the louder I laughed, until I
yelled with laughter, slapping my thighs and doubling myself up after
the manner of Mariano's hilarious visitor from purgatory. My companions
never smiled. Rivarola came back with the bucket of water, and, after
staring at me for some time, said, "If the tears, which they say always
follow laughter, come in the same measure, then we shall have to sleep
in the wet."
This increased my mirth.
"If the whole country is to be informed of our hiding-place," said
Blas the timid, "we were putting ourselves to an unnecessary trouble
by running away from San Paulo."
Fresh screams of laughter greeted this protest.
"I once knew a man," said Mariano, "who had a most extraordinary laugh;
you could hear it a league away, it was so loud. His name was Aniceto,
but we called him El Burro on account of his laugh, which sounded like
the braying of an ass. Well, sirs, he one day burst out laughing, like
the Captain here, at nothing at all, and fell down dead. You see, the
poor man had aneurism of the heart."
At this I fairly yelled, then, feeling quite exhausted, I looked
apprehensively at Lechuza, for this important member of the quartet
had not yet spoken.
With his immense, unspeakably serious eyes fixed on me, he remarked
quietly, "And this, my friends, is the man who says it is wrong to
But I was past shrieking now. Even this rich specimen of topsy-turvy
Banda Orientál morality only evoked a faint gurgling as I rolled about
on the grass, my sides aching, as if I had received a good bruising.
Day had just dawned when I rose to join Mariano at the fire he had
already kindled to heat the water for his early _maté_. I did not
like the idea of lying there concealed amongst the trees like some
hunted animal for an indefinite time; moreover, I had been advised by
Santa Coloma to proceed directly to the Lomas de Rocha, on the south
coast, in the event of a defeat, and this now seemed to me the best
thing to do. It had been very pleasant lying there "under the greenwood
tree," while those veracious stories of hags, lampalaguas, and
apparitions had proved highly entertaining; but a long spell, a whole
month perhaps, of that kind of life was not to be thought of; and if
I did not get to Rocha now, before the rural police were set to catch
runaway rebels, it would perhaps be impossible to do so later on. I
determined, therefore, to go my own way, and, after drinking bitter
_maté_, I caught and saddled the dun horse. I really had not
deserved the severe censure Lechuza had passed on me the previous
evening in reference to horse-stealing, for I had taken the dun with
very little more compunction than one is accustomed to feel in England
when "borrowing" an umbrella on a rainy day. To all people in all parts
of the world, a time comes when to appropriate their neighbour's goods
is held not only justifiable, but even meritorious; to Israelites in
Egypt, Englishmen under a cloud in their own moist island, and to
Orientals running away after a fight. By keeping the dun over thirty
hours in my possession I had acquired a kind of prescriptive right to
it, and now began to look on it as my very own; subsequent experience
of his endurance and other good qualities enables me to endorse the
Oriental saying that a "stolen horse carries you well."
Bidding farewell to my companions in defeat, who had certainly not
been frightened out of their imaginations, I rode forth just when it
was beginning to grow light. Roads and houses I studiously avoided,
travelling on at an easy gallop, which took me about ten miles an hour,
till noon; then I rested at a small _rancho_, where I fed and watered my
horse and recruited my own energies with roast beef and bitter _maté_. On
again till dark; by that time I had covered about forty miles, and began
to feel both hungry and tired. I had passed several _ranchos_ and
_estancia_ houses, but was shy of seeking entertainment at any of them,
and so went farther, only to fare worse. When the brief twilight was
darkening to night I came upon a broad cart-track, leading, I suppose, to
Montevideo from the eastern part of the country, and, seeing a long, low
_rancho_ near it, which I recognized as a _pulperia_, or store, by the
flagstaff planted before it, I resolved to purchase some refreshment for
myself, then to ride on a mile or two and spend the night under the
stars--a safe roof if an airy one. Tying my horse to the gate, I went
into the porch-like projection at the end of the _rancho_, which I found
divided from the interior by the counter, with its usual grating of
thick iron bars to protect the treasures of gin, rum, and comestibles
from drunken or quarrelsome customers. As soon as I came into the porch
I began to regret having alighted at the place, for there, standing
at the counter, smoking and drinking, were about a dozen very
rough-looking men. Unfortunately for me, they had tied their horses
under the shadow of a clump of trees some distance from the gate, so
that I had missed seeing them on my arrival. Once amongst them, however,
my only plan was to disguise my uneasiness, be very polite, get my
refreshments, then make my escape as speedily as possible. They stared
rather hard at me, but returned my salutation courteously; then going
to a disengaged corner of the counter, I rested my left elbow on it
and called for bread, a box of sardines, and a tumbler of wine.
"If you will join me, señores, the table is spread," said I; but they
all declined my invitation with thanks, and I began to eat my bread
They appeared to be all persons living in the immediate neighbourhood,
for they addressed each other familiarly and were conversing about
love matters. One of them, however, soon dropped out of the
conversation, and, edging away from the others, stood a little space
apart, leaning against the wall on the side of the porch farthest from
me. I began to notice this man very particularly, for it was plain to
see that I had excited his interest in an extraordinary manner, and
I did not like his scrutiny. He was, without exception, the most
murderous-looking villain I have ever had the misfortune to meet: that
was the deliberate opinion I came to before I formed a closer
acquaintance with him. He was a broad-chested, powerful-looking man
of medium height; his hands he kept concealed under the large cloth
_poncho_ he wore, and he had on a slouch hat that just allowed
his eyes to be seen under the rim. They were truculent, yellowish-green
eyes, that seemed to grow fiery and dim and fiery again by turns, yet
never for a single instant were they averted from my face. His black
hair hung to his shoulders, and he also had a bristly moustache, which
did not conceal his brutal mouth, nor was there any beard to hide his
broad, swarthy jowl. His jaws were the only part of him that had any
motion, while he stood there, still as a bronze statue, watching me.
At intervals he ground his teeth, after which he would slap his lips
together two or three times, while a slimy froth, most sickening to
see, gathered at the corners of his mouth.
"Gandara, you are not drinking," said one of the gauchos, turning to
him. He shook his head slightly without speaking or taking his eyes
off my face; whereupon the man who had spoken smiled and resumed his
conversation with the others.
The long, intense, soul-trying scrutiny this brutal wretch had subjected
me to came to a very sudden end. Quick as lightning a long, broad knife
flashed out from its concealment under his _poncho_, and with one
cat-like bound he was before me, the point of his horrid weapon touching
my _poncho_ just over the pit of my stomach.
"Do not move, rebel," he said in a husky voice. "If you move one hair's
breadth, that moment you die."
The other men all ceased talking and looked on with some interest, but
did not offer to interfere or make any remark.
For one moment I felt as if an electric shock had gone through me, and
then instantly I was calm--never, in fact, have I felt more calm and
collected than at that terrible moment. 'Tis a blessed instinct of
self-preservation which nature has provided us with; feeble, timid men
possess it in common with the strong and brave, as weak, persecuted
wild animals have it as well as those that are fierce and bloodthirsty.
It is the calm which comes without call when death suddenly and
unexpectedly rises up to stare us in the face; it tells us that there
is one faint chance which a premature attempt to escape or even a
slight agitation will destroy.
"I have no wish to move, friend," I said, "but I am curious to know
why you attack me?"
"Because you are a rebel. I have seen you before, you are one of Santa
Coloma's officers. Here you shall stand with this knife touching you
till you are arrested, or else with this knife in you here you shall
"You are making a mistake," I said.
"Neighbours," said he, speaking to the others, but without taking his
eyes from my face, "will you tie this man hand and foot while I stand
before him to prevent him from drawing any weapon he may have concealed
under his _poncho_?"
"We have not come here to arrest travellers," returned one of the men.
"If he is a rebel it is no concern of ours. Perhaps you are mistaken,
"No, no, I am not mistaken," he returned. "He shall not escape. I saw
him at San Paulo with these eyes--when did they ever deceive me? If
you refuse to assist me, then go one of you to the Alcalde's house and
tell him to come without delay, while I keep guard here."
After a little discussion one of the men offered to go and inform the
Alcalde. When he had left, I said, "My friend, may I finish my meal?
I am hungry, and had just begun to eat when you drew your knife against
"Yes; eat," he said; "only keep your hands well up so that I can see
them. Perhaps you have a weapon at your waist."
"I have not," I said, "for I am an inoffensive person and do not require
"Tongues were made to lie," he returned, truly enough. "If I see you
drop your hand lower than the counter I shall rip you up. We shall
then be able to see whether you digest your food or not."
I began to eat and sip my wine, still with those brutal eyes on my
face and the keen knife-point touching my _poncho_. There was now
a ghastly look of horrible excitement on his face, while his
teeth-grinding performances became more frequent and the slimy froth
dropped continually from the corners of his mouth on to his bosom. I
dared not look at the knife, because a terrible impulse to wrest it
out of his hands kept rising in me. It was almost too strong to be
overcome, yet I knew that even the slightest attempt to escape would
be fatal to me; for the fellow was evidently thirsty for my blood and
only wanted an excuse to run me through. But what, I thought, if he
were to grow tired of waiting, and, carried away by his murderous
instincts, to plunge his weapon into me? In that case I should die
like a dog, without having availed myself of my one chance of escape
through over-caution. These thoughts were maddening, still through it
all I laboured to observe an outwardly calm demeanour.
My supper was done. I began to feel strangely weak and nervous. My
lips grew dry; I was intensely thirsty and longed for more wine, yet
dared not take it for fear that in my excited state even a very moderate
amount of alcohol might cloud my brain.
"How long will it take your friend to return with the Alcalde?" I asked
Gandara made no reply. "A long time," said one of the other men. "I,
for one, cannot wait till he comes," and after that he took his
departure. One by one they now began to drop away, till only two men
besides Gandara remained in the porch. Still that murderous wretch
kept before me like a tiger watching its prey, or rather like a wild
boar, gnashing and foaming, and ready to rip up its adversary with
At length I made an appeal to him, for I began to despair of the Alcalde
coming to deliver me. "Friend," I said, "if you will allow me to speak,
I can convince you that you are mistaken. I am a foreigner, and know
nothing about Santa Coloma."
"No, no," he interrupted, pressing the knife-point warningly against
my stomach, then suddenly withdrawing it as if about to plunge it intome.
"I know you are a rebel. If I thought the Alcalde were not coming
I would run you through at once and cut your throat afterwards. It is
a virtue to kill a Blanco traitor, and if you do not go bound hand and
foot from here then here you must die. What, do you dare to say that
I did not see you at San Paulo--that you are not an officer of Santa
Coloma? Look, rebel, I will swear on this cross that I saw you there."
Suiting the action to the word, he raised the hilt of the weapon to
his lips to kiss the guard, which with the handle formed a cross. That
pious action was the first slip he had made, and gave the first
opportunity that had come to me during all that terrible interview.
Before he had ceased speaking, the conviction that my time had come
flashed like lightning through my brain. Just as his slimy lips kissed
the hilt, my right hand dropped to my side and grasped the handle of
my revolver under my _poncho_. He saw the movement, and very
quickly recovered the handle of his knife. In another second of time
he would have driven the blade through me; but that second was all I
now required. Straight from my waist, and from under my _poncho_,
I fired. His knife fell ringing on to the floor; he swerved, then fell
back, coming to the ground with a heavy thud. Over his falling body
I leaped, and almost before he had touched the ground was several yards
away, then, wheeling round, I found the other two men rushing out after
"Back!" I shouted, covering the foremost of the two with my revolver.
They instantly stood still.
"We are not following you, friend," said one, "but only wish to get
out of the place."
"Back, or I fire!" I repeated, and then they retreated into the porch.
They had stood by unconcerned while their cut-throat comrade Gandara
was threatening my life, so that I naturally felt angry with them.
I sprang upon my horse, but, instead of riding away at once, stood for
some minutes by the gate watching the two men. They were kneeling by
Gandara, one opening his clothes to look for the wound, the other
holding a flaring candle over his ashen, corpse-like face.
"Is he dead?" I asked.
One of the men looked up and answered, "It appears so."
"Then," I returned, "I make you a present of his carcass."
After that, digging my spurs into my horse, I galloped away.
Some readers might imagine, after what I had related, that my sojourn
in the Purple Land had quite brutalised me; I am happy to inform them
that it was not so. Whatever a man's individual character may happen
to be, he has always a strong inclination in him to reply to an attack
in the spirit in which it is made. He does not call the person who
playfully ridicules his foibles a whitened sepulchre or an unspeakable
scoundrel, and the same principle holds good when it comes to actual
physical fighting. If a French gentleman were to call me out, I daresay
I should go to the encounter twirling my moustache, bowing down to the
ground, all smiles and compliments; and that I should select my rapier
with a pleasant kind of feeling, like that experienced by the satirist
about to write a brilliant article while picking out a pen with a
suitable nib. On the other hand, if a murderous brute with truculent
eyes and gnashing teeth attempts to disembowel me with a butcher's
knife, the instinct of self-preservation comes out in all its old
original ferocity, inspiring the heart with such implacable fury that
after spilling his blood I could spurn his loathsome carcass with my
foot. I do not wonder at myself for speaking those savage words. That
he was past recall seemed certain, yet not a shade of regret did I
feel at his death. Joy at the terrible retribution I had been able to
inflict on the murderous wretch was the only emotion I experienced
when galloping away into the darkness--such joy that I could have sung
and shouted aloud had it not seemed imprudent to indulge in such
expression of feeling.
After my terrible adventure I did not rest badly that night, albeit
I slept on an empty stomach (the sardines counting as nothing), and
under the vast, void sky, powdered with innumerable stars. And when
I proceeded next day on my journey, _God's light_, as the pious
Orientals call the first wave of glory with which the rising sun floods
the world, had never seemed so pleasant to my eyes, nor had earth ever
looked fresher or lovelier, with the grass and bushes everywhere hung
with starry lace, sparkling with countless dewy gems, which the
_epeiras_ had woven overnight. Life seemed very sweet to me on
that morning, so softening my heart that when I remembered the murderous
wretch who had endangered it I almost regretted that he was now probably
blind and deaf to nature's sweet ministrations.
Before noon I came to a large, thatched house, with clumps of shady
trees growing near it, also surrounded with brushwood fences and sheep
and cattle enclosures.
The blue smoke curling peacefully up from the chimney and the white
gleam of the walls through the shady trees--for this _rancho_
actually boasted a chimney and whitewashed walls--looked exceedingly
inviting to my tired eyes. How pleasant a good breakfast, with a long
siesta in the shade after it, would be, thought I; but, alas! was I
not pursued by the awful phantoms of political vengeance? Uncertain
whether to call or not, my horse jogged straight on towards the house,
for a horse always knows when his rider is in doubt and never fails
at such times to give his advice. It was lucky for me that on this
occasion I condescended to take it. "I will, at all events, call for
a drink of water and see what the people are like," I thought, and in
a few minutes I was standing at the gate, apparently an object of great
interest to half a dozen children ranging from two to thirteen years
old, all staring at me with wide-open eyes. They had dirty faces, the
smallest one dirty legs also, for he or she wore nothing but a small
shirt. The next in size had a shirt supplemented with a trousers-like
garment reaching to the knees; and so on, progressively, up to the
biggest boy, who wore the cast-off parental toggery, and so, instead
of having too little on, was, in a sense, overdressed. I asked this
youngster for a can of water to quench my thirst and a stick of fire
to light my cigar. He ran into the kitchen, or living-room, and by and
by came out again without either water or fire. "_Papita_ wishes
you to come in to drink _maté_," said he.
Then I dismounted, and, with the careless air of a blameless,
non-political person, strode into the spacious kitchen, where an immense
cauldron of fat was boiling over a big fire on the hearth; while beside
it, ladle in hand, sat a perspiring, greasy-looking woman of about
thirty. She was engaged in skimming the fat and throwing the scum on
the fire, which made it blaze with a furious joy and loudly cry out
in a crackling voice for more; and from head to feet she was literally
bathed in grease--certainly the most greasy individual I had ever seen.
It was not easy under the circumstances to tell the colour of her skin,
but she had fine large Juno eyes, and her mouth was unmistakably
good-humoured, as she smiled when returning my salutation. Her husband
sat on the clay floor against the wall, his bare feet stretched straight
out before him, while across his lap lay an immense surcingle, twenty
inches broad at least, of a pure white, untanned hide; and on it he
was laboriously working a design representing an ostrich hunt, with
threads of black skin. He was a short, broad-shouldered man with
reddish-grey hair, stiff, bristly whiskers and moustache of the same
hue, sharp blue eyes, and a nose decidedly upturned.
He wore a red cotton handkerchief tied on his head, a blue check shirt,
and a shawl wound round his body in place of the _chiripà_ usually
worn by native peasants. He jerked out his _"Buen dia"_ to me in
a short, quick, barking voice, and invited me to sit down.
"Cold water is bad for the constitution at this hour," he said. "We
will drink _maté."_
There was such a rough, burr-like sound in his speech that I at once
concluded he was a foreigner, or hailed from some Oriental district
corresponding to our Durham or Northumberland.
"Thank you," I said, "a _maté_ is always welcome. I am an Oriental
in that respect if in nothing else." For I wished everyone I met to
know that I was not a native.
"Right, my friend," he exclaimed. _"Maté_ is the best thing in
this country. As for the people, they are not worth cursing."
"How can you say such a thing," I returned. "You are a foreigner, I
suppose, but your wife is surely an Oriental."
The Juno of the grease-pot smiled and threw a ladleful of tallow on
the fire to make it roar; possibly this was meant for applause.
He waved his hand deprecatingly, the bradawl used for his work in it.
"True, friend, she is," he replied. "Women, like horned cattle, are
much the same all the world over. They have their value wherever you
find them--America, Europe, Asia. We know it. I spoke of men."
"You scarcely do women justice--
_La mujer es un angel del cielo,"_
I returned, quoting the old Spanish song.
He barked out a short little laugh.
"That does very well to sing to a guitar," he said.
"Talking of guitars," spoke the woman, addressing me for the first
time; "while we are waiting for the _maté,_ perhaps you will sing
us a ballad. The guitar is lying just behind you."
"Señora, I do not play on it," I answered. "An Englishman goes forth
into the world without that desire, common to people of other nations,
of making himself agreeable to those he may encounter on his way; this
is why he does not learn to perform on musical instruments."
The little man stared at me; then, deliberately disencumbering himself
of surcingle, threads, and implements, he got up, advanced to me, and
held out his hand.
His grave manner almost made me laugh. Taking his hand in mine, I said:
"What am I to do with this, my friend?"
"Shake it," he replied. "We are countrymen."
We then shook hands very vigorously for some time in silence, while
his wife looked on with a smile and stirred the fat.
"Woman," he said, turning to her, "leave your grease till tomorrow.
Breakfast must be thought of. Is there any mutton in the house?"
"Half a sheep--only," she replied.
"That will do for one meal," said he. "Here, Teofilo, run and tell
Anselmo to catch two pullets--fat ones, mind. To be plucked at once.
You may look for half a dozen fresh eggs for your mother to put in the
stew. And, Felipe, go find Cosme and tell him to saddle the roan pony
to go to the store at once. Now, wife, what is wanted--rice, sugar,
vinegar, oil, raisins, pepper, saffron, salt, cloves, cummin seed,
"Stop one moment," I cried. "If you think it necessary to get provisions
enough for an army to give me breakfast, I must tell you that I draw
the line at brandy. I never touch it--in this country."
He shook hands with me again.
"You are right," he said. "Always stick to the native drink, wherever
you are, even if it is black draught. Whisky in Scotland, in the Banda
Orientál rum--that's my rule."
The place was now in a great commotion, the children saddling ponies,
shouting in pursuit of fugitive chickens, and my energetic host ordering
his wife about.
After the boy was despatched for the things and my horse taken care
of, we sat for half an hour in the kitchen sipping _maté_ and
conversing very agreeably. Then my host took me out into his garden
behind the house to be out of his wife's way while she was engaged
cooking breakfast, and there he began talking in English.
"Twenty-five years I have been on this continent," said he, telling
me his history, "eighteen of them in the Banda Orientál."
"Well, you have not forgotten your language," I said. "I suppose you
"Read! What! I would as soon think of wearing trousers. No, no, my
friend, never read. Leave politics alone. When people molest you,
shoot 'em--those are my rules. Edinburgh was my home. Had enough
reading when I was a boy; heard enough psalm-singing, saw enough
scrubbing and scouring to last me my lifetime. My father was a bookseller
in the High Street, near the Cowgate--you know! Mother, she was
pious—they were all pious. Uncle, a minister, lived with us. That
was all worse than purgatory to me. I was educated at the High
School--intended for the ministry, ha, ha! My only pleasure was to
get a book of travels in some savage country, skulk into my room, throw
off my boots, light a pipe, and lie on the floor reading--locked up from
everyone. Sundays just the same, They called me a sinner, said I was
going to the devil--fast. It was my nature. They didn't understand--kept
on ding-donging in my ears. Always scrubbing, scouring--you might have
eaten your dinner off the floor; always singing psalms--praying--
scolding. Couldn't bear it; ran away at fifteen, and have never heard a
word from home since. What happened? I came here, worked, saved, bought
land, cattle; married a wife, lived as I liked to live--am happy. There's
my wife--mother of six children--you have seen her yourself, a woman for
a man to be proud of. No ding-donging, black looks, scouring from Monday
to Saturday--you couldn't eat your dinner off my kitchen floor. There are
my children, six of 'em, all told, boys and girls, healthy, dirty as
they like to be, happy as the day's long; and here am I, John
Carrickfergus--Don Juan all the country over, my surname no native can
pronounce--respected, feared, loved; a man his neighbour can rely on to
do him a good turn; one who never hesitates about putting a bullet in any
vulture, wild cat, or assassin that crosses his path. Now you know all."
"An extraordinary history," I said, "but I suppose you teach your
"Teach 'em nothing," he returned, with emphasis. "All we think about
in the old country are books, cleanliness, clothes; what's good for
soul, brain, stomach; and we make 'em miserable. Liberty for
everyone--that's my rule. Dirty children are healthy, happy children.
If a bee stings you in England, you clap on fresh dirt to cure the
pain. Here we cure all kinds of pain with dirt. If my child is ill I
dig up a spadeful of fresh mould and rub it well--best remedy out. I'm
not religious, but I remember _one_ miracle. The Saviour spat on
the ground and made mud with the spittle to anoint the eyes of the
blind man. Made him see directly. What does that mean? Common remedyof
the country, of course. _He_ didn't need the clay, but followed
the custom, same as in the other miracles. In Scotland dirt's
wickedness--how'd they reconcile that with Scripture? I don't say
_Nature_, mind, I say, _Scripture_, because the Bible's the
book they swear by, though they didn't write it."
"I shall think over what you say about children, and the best way to
rear them," I returned. "I needn't decide in a hurry, as I haven't any
He barked his short laugh and led me back to the house, where the
arrangements for breakfast were now completed. The children took their
meal in the kitchen, we had ours in a large, cool room adjoining it.
There was a small table laid with a spotless white cloth, and real
crockery plates and real knives and forks. There were also real glass
tumblers, bottles of Spanish wine, and snow-white _pan creollo_.
Evidently my hostess had made good use of her time. She came in
immediately after we were seated, and I scarcely recognized her; for
she was not only clean now, but good-looking as well, with that rich
olive colour on her oval face, her black hair well arranged, and her
dark eyes full of tender, loving light. She was now wearing a white
merino dress with a quaint maroon-coloured pattern on it, and a white
silk kerchief fastened with a gold brooch at her neck. It was pleasant
to look at her, and, noticing my admiring glances, she blushed when
she sat down, then laughed. The breakfast was excellent. Roast mutton
to begin, then a dish of chickens stewed with rice, nicely flavoured
and coloured with red Spanish _pimenton_. A fowl roasted or boiled,
as we eat them in England, is wasted, compared with this delicious
_guiso de potto_ which one gets in any _rancho_ in the Banda
Orient. After the meats we sat for an hour cracking walnuts,
sipping wine, smoking cigarettes, and telling amusing stories; and I
doubt whether there were three happier people in all Uruguay that
morning than the un-Scotched Scotchman, John Carrickfergus, his
un-ding-donging native wife, and their guest, who had shot his man on
the previous evening.
After breakfast I spread my _poncho_ on the dry grass under a
tree to sleep the siesta. My slumbers lasted a long time, and on waking
I was surprised to find my host and hostess seated on the grass near
me, he busy ornamenting his surcingle, she with the _maté_-cup
in her hand and a kettle of hot water beside her. She was drying her
eyes, I fancied, when I opened mine.
"Awake at last!" cried Don Juan pleasantly. "Come and drink _maté_.
Wife just been crying, you see."
She made a sign for him to hold his peace.
"Why not speak of it, Candelaria?" he said. "Where is the harm? You
see, my wife thinks you have been in the wars--a Santa Coloma man
running away to save his throat."
"How does she make that out?" I asked in some confusion and very much
"How! Don't you know women? You said nothing about where you had
been--prudence. That was one thing. Looked confused when we talked of
the revolution--not a word to say about it. More evidence. Your
_poncho_, lying there, shows two big cuts in it. 'Torn by thorns,'
said I. 'Sword-cuts,' said she. We were arguing about it when you
"She guessed rightly," I said, "and I am ashamed of myself for not
telling you before. But why should your wife cry?"
"Woman like--woman like," he answered, waving his hand. "Always ready
to cry over the beaten one--that is the only politics they know."
"Did I not say that woman is an angel from heaven," I returned; then,
taking her hand, I kissed it. "This is the first time I have kissed
a married woman's hand, but the husband of such a wife will know better
than to be jealous."
"Jealous--ha, ha!" he laughed. "It would have made me prouder if you
had kissed her cheek."
"Juan--a nice thing to say!" exclaimed his wife, slapping his hand
Then while we sipped _maté_ I told them the history of my campaign,
finding it necessary, when explaining my motives for joining the rebels,
to make some slight deviations from the strictest form of truth. He
agreed that my best plan was to go on to Rocha to wait there for a
passport before proceeding to Montevideo. But I was not allowed to
leave them that day; and, while we talked over our _maté_,
Candelaria deftly repaired the tell-tale cuts in my _poncho_.
I spent the afternoon making friends with the children, who proved to
be very intelligent and amusing little beggars, telling them some
nonsensical stories I invented, and listening to their bird's-nesting,
armadillo-chasing, and other adventures. Then came a late dinner, after
which the children said their prayers and retired, then we smoked and
sang songs without an accompaniment, and I finished a happy day by
sinking to sleep in a soft, clean bed.
I had announced my intention of leaving at daybreak next morning; and
when I woke, finding it already light, I dressed hastily, and, going
out, found my horse already saddled standing, with three other saddled
horses, at the gate. In the kitchen I found Don Juan, his wife, and
the two biggest boys having their early _maté_. My host told me
that he had been up an hour, and was only waiting to wish me a
prosperous journey before going out to gather up his cattle. He at
once wished me good-bye, and with his two boys went off, leaving me
to partake of poached eggs and coffee--quite an English breakfast.
I then rose and thanked the good señora for her hospitality.
"One moment," she said, when I held out my hand, and, drawing a small
silk bag from her bosom, she offered it to me. "My husband has given
me permission to present you with this at parting. It is only a small
gift, but while you are in this trouble and away from all your friends
it perhaps might be of use to you."
I did not wish to take money from her after all the kind treatment I
had received, and so allowed the purse to lie on my open hand where
she had placed it.
"And if I cannot accept it----" I began.
"Then you will hurt me very much," she replied. "Could you do that
after the kind words you spoke yesterday?"
I could not resist, but, after putting the purse away, took her hand
and kissed it.
"Good-bye, Candelaria," I said, "you have made me love your country
and repent every harsh word I have ever spoken against it."
Her hand remained in mine; she stood smiling, and did not seem to think
the last word had been spoken yet. Then, seeing her there looking so
sweet and loving, and remembering the words her husband had spoken the
day before, I stooped and kissed her cheek and lips.
"Adieu, my friend, and God be with you," she said.
I think there were tears in her eyes when I left her, but I could not
see clearly, for mine also had suddenly grown dim.
And only the day before I had felt amused at the sight of this woman
sitting hot and greasy over her work, and had called her Juno of the
grease-pot! Now, after an acquaintance of about eighteen hours, I had
actually kissed her--a wife and the mother of six children, bidding
her adieu with trembling voice and moist eyes! I know that I shall
never forget those eyes, full of sweet, pure affection and tender
sympathy, looking into mine; all my life long shall I think of
Candelaria, loving her like a sister. Could any woman in my own
ultra-civilised and excessively proper country inspire me with a feeling
like that in so short a time? I fancy not. Oh, civilisation, with your
million conventions, soul and body withering prudishnesses, vain
education for the little ones, going to church in best black clothes,
unnatural craving for cleanliness, feverish striving after comforts
that bring no comfort to the heart, are you a mistake altogether?
Candelaria and that genial runaway John Carrickfergus make me think
so. Ah, yes, we are all vainly seeking after happiness in the wrong
way. It was with us once and ours, but we despised it, for it was only
the old, common happiness which Nature gives to all her children, and
we went away from it in search of another grander kind of happiness
which some dreamer--Bacon or another--assured us we should find. We
had only to conquer Nature, find out her secrets, make her our obedient
slave, then the earth would be Eden, and every man Adam and every Woman
Eve. We are still marching bravely on, conquering Nature, but how weary
and sad we are getting! The old joy in life and gaiety of heart have
vanished, though we do sometimes pause for a few moments in our long
forced march to watch the labours of some pale mechanician seeking
after perpetual motion and indulge in a little dry, cackling laugh at
After leaving John and Candelaria's home of liberty and love, nothing
further worth recording happened till I had nearly reached the desired
haven of the Lomas de Rocha, a place which I was, after all, never
destined to see except from a great distance. A day unusually brilliant
even for this bright climate was drawing to a close, it being within
about two hours of sunset, when I turned out of my way to ascend a
hill with a very long, ridge-like summit, falling away at one end,
appearing like the last sierra of a range just where it dies down into
the level plain; only in this instance the range itself did not exist.
The solitary hill was covered with short tussocks of yellow, wiry
grass, with occasional bushes, while near the summit large slabs of
sandstone appeared just above the surface, looking like gravestones
in some old village churchyard, with all their inscriptions obliterated
by time and weather. From this elevation, which was about a hundred
feet above the plain, I wished to survey the country before me, for
I was tired and hungry, so was my horse, and I was anxious to find a
resting-place before night. Before me the country stretched away in
vast undulations towards the ocean, which was not, however, in sight.
Not the faintest stain of vapour appeared on the immense crystalline
dome of heaven, while the stillness and transparency of the atmosphere
seemed almost preternatural. A blue gleam of water, south-east of where
I stood and many leagues distant, I took to be the lake of Rocha; on
the western horizon were faint blue cloud-like masses with pearly
peaks. They were not clouds, however, but the sierras of the range
weirdly named _Cuchilla de las Animas_--Ghost-haunted Mountains.
At length, like a person who puts his binocular into his pocket and
begins to look about him, I recalled my vision from its wanderings
over illimitable space to examine the objects close at hand. On the
slope of the hill, sixty yards from my standpoint, were some deep
green, dwarf bushes, each bush looking in that still brilliant sunshine
as if it had been hewn out of a block of malachite; and on the pale
purple solanaceous flowers covering them some humble-bees were feeding.
It was the humming of the bees coming distinctly to my ears that first
attracted my attention to the bushes; for so still was the atmosphere
that at that distance apart--sixty yards--two persons might have
conversed easily without raising their voices. Much farther down, about
two hundred yards from the bushes, a harrier hawk stood on the ground,
tearing at something it had captured, feeding in that savage, suspicious
manner usual with hawks, with long pauses between the bites. Over the
harrier hovered a brown milvago hawk, a vulture-like bird in its habits,
that lives by picking up unconsidered trifles. Envious at the other's
good fortune, or fearing, perhaps, that not even the crumbs or feathers
of the feast were going to be left, it was persecuting the harrier by
darting down at intervals with an angry cry and aiming a blow with its
wing. The harrier methodically ducked its head each time its tormentor
rushed down at it, after which it would tear its prey again in its
uncomfortable manner. Farther away, in the depression running along
at the foot of the hill, meandered a small stream so filled with aquatic
grasses and plants that the water was quite concealed, its course
appearing like a vivid green snake, miles long, lying there basking
in the sunshine. At the point of the stream nearest to me an old man
was seated on the ground, apparently washing himself, for he was
stooping over a little pool of water, while behind him stood his horse
with patient, drooping head, occasionally switching off the flies with
its tail. A mile farther on stood a dwelling, which looked to me like
an old _estancia_ house, surrounded by large shade trees growing
singly or in irregular clumps. It was the only house near, but after
gazing at it for some time I concluded that it was uninhabited. For
even at that distance I could see plainly that there were no human
beings moving about it, no horse or other domestic animal near, and
there were certainly no hedges or enclosures of any description.
Slowly I went down the hill, and to the old man sitting beside the
stream. I found him engaged in the seemingly difficult operation of
disentangling a luxuriant crop of very long hair, which had
somehow--possibly from long neglect--got itself into great confusion.
He had dipped his head into the water, and with an old comb, boasting
about seven or eight teeth, was laboriously and with infinite patience
drawing out the long hairs, a very few at a time. After saluting him,
I lit a cigarette, and, leaning on the neck of my horse, watched his
efforts for some time with profound interest. He toiled away in silence
for five or six minutes, then dipped his head in the water again, and,
while carefully wringing the wet out, he remarked that my horse looked
"Yes," I replied; "so is his rider. Can you tell me who lives in that
"My master," he returned laconically.
"Is he a good-hearted man--one who will give shelter to a stranger?"
He took a very long time to answer me, then said:
"He has nothing to say about such matters."
"An invalid?" I remarked.
Another long pause; then he shook his head and tapped his forehead
significantly; after which he resumed his mermaid task.
"Demented?" said I.
He elevated an eyebrow and shrugged his shoulders, but said nothing.
After a long silence, for I was anxious not to irritate him with too
much questioning, I ventured to remark:
"Well, they will not set the dogs on me, will they?"
He grinned, and said that it was an establishment without dogs.
I paid him for his information with a cigarette, which he took very
readily, and seemed to think smoking a pleasant relief after his
"An _estancia_ without dogs, and where the master has nothing to
say--that sounds strange," I remarked tentatively, but he puffed on
"What is the name of the house?" I said, after remounting my horse.
"It is a house without a name," he replied; and after this rather
unsatisfactory interview I left him and slowly went on to the
On approaching the house I saw that there had formerly been a large
plantation behind it, of which only a few dead stumps now remained,
the ditches that had enclosed them being now nearly obliterated. The
place was ruinous and overgrown with weeds. Dismounting, I led my horse
along a narrow path through a perfect wilderness of wild sunflowers,
horehound, red-weed, and thorn-apple, up to some poplar trees where
there had once been a gate, of which only two or three broken posts
remained standing in the ground. From the old gate the path ran on,
still through weeds, to the door of the house, which was partly of
stone and partly of red brick, with a very steep, sloping, tiled roof.
Beside the ruined gate, leaning against a post, with the hot afternoon
sun shining on her uncovered head, stood a woman in a rusty-black
dress. She was about twenty-six or twenty-seven years old, and had an
unutterably weary, desponding expression on her face, which was
colourless as marble, except for the purple stains under her large,
dark eyes. She did not move when I approached her, but raised her
sorrowful eyes to my face, apparently feeling little interest in my
I took off my hat to salute her, and said:
"Señora, my horse is tired, and I am seeking for a resting-place; can
I have shelter under your roof?"
"Yes, _caballero_; why not?" she returned in a voice even more
significant of sorrow than her countenance.
I thanked her, and waited for her to lead the way; but she still
remained standing before me with eyes cast down, and a hesitating,
troubled look on her face.
"Señora," I began, "if a stranger's presence in the house would be
"No, no, señor, it is not that," she interrupted quickly. Then, sinking
her voice almost to a whisper, she said: "Tell me, señor, have you
come from the department of Florida? Have you--have you been at San
I hesitated a little, then answered that I had.
"On which side?" she asked quickly, with a strange eagerness in her
"Ah, señora," I returned, "why do you ask me, only a poor traveller
who comes for a night's shelter, such a question--"
"Why? Perhaps for your good, señor. Remember, women are not like
men--implacable. A shelter you shall have, señor; but it is best that
I should know."
"You are right," I returned, "forgive me for not answering you at once.
I was with Santa Coloma--the rebel."
She held out her hand to me, but, before I could take it, withdrew it
and, covering her face, began to cry. Presently recovering herself and
turning towards the house, she asked me to follow.
Her gestures and tears had told me eloquently enough that she too
belonged to the unhappy Blanco party.
"Have you, then, lost some relation in this fight, señora?" I asked.
"No, señor," she replied; "but if our party had triumphed, perhaps
deliverance would have come to me. Ah, no; I lost my relations long
ago--all except my father. You shall know presently, when you see him,
why our cruel enemies refrained from shedding _his_ blood."
By that time we had reached the house. There had once been a verandah
to it, but this had long fallen away, leaving the walls, doors, and
windows exposed to sun and rain. Lichen covered the stone walls, while,
in the crevices and over the tiled roof, weeds and grass had flourished;
but this vegetation had died with the summer heats and was now parched
and yellow. She led me into a spacious room, so dimly lighted from the
low door and one small window that it seemed quite dark to me coming
from the bright sunlight. I stood for a few moments trying to accustom
my eyes to the gloom, while she, advancing to the middle of the
apartment, bent down and spoke to an aged man seated in a leather-bound
"Papa," she said, "I have brought in a young man--a stranger who has
asked for shelter under our roof. Welcome him, papa."
Then she straightened herself, and, passing behind the chair, stood
leaning on it, facing me.
"I wish you good day, señor," I said, advancing with a little
There before me sat a tall, bent old man, wasted almost to a skeleton,
with a grey, desolate face and long hair and beard of a silver
whiteness. He was wrapped in a light-coloured _poncho_, and wore
a black skull-cap on his head. When I spoke he leant back in his seatand
began scanning my face with strangely fierce, eager eyes, all the
time twisting his long, thin fingers together in a nervous, excited
"What, Calixto," he exclaimed at length, "is this the way you come
into my presence? Ha, you thought I would not recognise you! Down--down,
boy, on your knees!"
I glanced at his daughter standing behind him; she was watching my
face anxiously, and made a slight inclination with her head.
Taking this as an intimation to obey the old man's commands, I went
down on my knees, and touched my lips to the hand he extended.
"May God give you grace, my son," he said, with tremulous voice. Then
he continued: "What, did you expect to find your old father blind then?
I would know you amongst a thousand, Calixto. Ah, my son, my son, why
have you kept away so long? Stand, my son, and let me embrace you."
He rose up tottering from his chair and threw his arm about me; then,
after gazing into my face for some moments, deliberately kissed me on
"Ha, Calixto," he continued, putting his trembling hands upon my
shoulders and gazing into my face out of his wild, sunken eyes, "do
I need ask where you have been? Where should a Peralta be but in the
smoke of the battle, in the midst of carnage, fighting for the Banda
Orientál? I did not complain of your absence, Calixto--Demetria will
tell you that I was patient through all these years, for I knew you
would come back to me at last wearing the laurel wreath of victory.
And I, Calixto, what have I worn, sitting here? A crown of nettles!
Yes, for a hundred years I have worn it--you are my witness, Demetria,
my daughter, that I have worn this crown of stinging-nettles for a
He sank back, apparently exhausted, in his chair, and I uttered a sigh
of relief, thinking the interview was now over. But I was mistaken.
His daughter placed a chair for me at his side. "Sit here, señor, and
talk to my father, while I have your horse taken care of," she
whispered, and then quickly glided from the room. This was rather hard
on me, I thought; but while whispering those few words she touched my
hand lightly and turned her wistful eyes with a grateful look on mine,
and I was glad for her sake that I had not blundered.
Presently the old man roused himself again and began talking eagerly,
asking me a hundred wild questions, to which I was compelled to reply,
still trying to keep up the character of the long-lost son just returned
victorious from the wars.
"Tell me where you have fought and overcome the enemy," he exclaimed,
raising his voice almost to a scream. "Where have they flown from you
like chaff before the wind?--where have you trodden them down under
your horses' hoofs?--name--name the places and the battles to me,
I felt strongly inclined just then to jump up and rush out of the room,
so trying was this mad conversation to my nerves; but I thought of his
daughter Demetria's white, pathetic face, and restrained the impulse.
Then in sheer desperation I began to talk madly as himself. I thought
I would make him sick of warlike subjects. Everywhere, I cried, we had
defeated, slaughtered, scattered to the four winds of heaven, the
infamous Colorados. From the sea to the Brazilian frontier we have
been victorious. With sword, lance, and bayonet we have stormed and
taken every town from Tacuarembó to Montevideo. Every river from the
Yaguaron to the Uruguay had run red with Colorado blood. In forests
and sierras we had hunted them, flying like wild beasts from us; we
had captured them in thousands, only to cut their throats, crucify
them, blow them from guns, and tear them limb by limb to pieces with
I was only pouring oil on the blazing fire of his insanity.
"Aha!" he shouted, his eyes sparkling, while he wildly clutched my arm
with his skinny, claw-like hands, "did I not know--have I not said it?
Did I not fight for a hundred years, wading through blood every day,
and then at last send you forth to finish the battle? And every day
our enemies came and shouted in my ears, 'Victory--victory!' They told
me you were dead, Calixto--that their weapons had pierced you, that
they had given your flesh to be devoured of wild dogs. And I shouted
with laughter to hear them. I laughed in their faces, and clapped my
hands and cried out, 'Prepare your throats for the sword, traitors,
slaves, assassins, for a Peralta--even Calixto, devoured of wild
dogs--is coming to execute vengeance! What, will God not leave one
strong arm to strike at the tyrant's breast--one Peralta in all this
land! Fly, miscreants! Die, wretches! He has risen from the grave--he
has come back from hell, armed with hell-fire to burn your towns to
ashes--to extirpate you utterly from the earth!'"
His thin, tremulous voice had risen towards the close of this mad
speech to a reedy shriek that rang through the quiet, darkening house
like the long, shrill cry of some water-fowl heard at night in the
Then he loosened his hold on my arm and dropped back moaning and
shivering into his seat. His eyes closed, his whole frame trembled,
and he looked like a person just recovering from an epileptic fit;
then he seemed to sink to sleep. It was now getting quite dark, for
the sun had been down some time, and it was with the greatest relief
that I saw Doña Demetria gliding like a ghost into the room. She touched
me on the arm and whispered, "Come, señor, he is asleep now."
I followed her out into the fresh air, which had never seemed so fresh
before; then, turning to me, she hurriedly whispered, "Remember, señor,
that what you have told me is a secret. Say not one word of it to any
other person here."
She then led me to the kitchen at the end of the house. It was one of
those roomy, old-fashioned kitchens still to be found in a few
_estancia_ houses built in colonial times, in which the fireplace,
raised a foot or two above the floor, extends the whole width of the
room. It was large and dimly lighted, the walls and rafters black with
a century's smoke and abundantly festooned with sooty cobwebs; but a
large, cheerful fire blazed on the hearth, while before it stood a
tall, gaunt woman engaged in cooking the supper and serving _maté_.
This was Ramona, an old servant on the _estancia_.
There also sat my friend of the tangled tresses, which he had evidently
succeeded in combing well out, for they now hung down quite smooth on
his back and as long as a woman's hair. Another person was also seated
near the fire, whose age might have been anything from twenty-five to
forty-five, for he had, I think, a mixture of Indian blood in his
veins, and one of those smooth, dry, dark faces that change but little
with age. He was an undersized, wiry-looking man with a small, intensely
black moustache, but no whiskers or beard. He seemed to be a person
of some consequence in the house, and when my conductress introduced
him to me as "Don Hilario," he rose to his feet and received me with
a profound bow. In spite of his excessive politeness I conceived a
feeling of distrust towards him from the moment I saw him; and this
was because his small, watchful eyes were perpetually glancing at my
face in a furtive manner, only to glance swiftly away again whenever
I looked at him; for he seemed quite incapable of meeting the gaze of
another. We drank _maté_ and talked a little, but were not a
lively party. Doña Demetria, though she sat with us, scarcely
contributed a word to the conversation; while the long-haired
man--Santos by name, and the only peon on the establishment--smoked
his cigarette and sipped his _maté_ in absolute silence.
Bony old Ramona at length dished up the supper and carried it out of
the kitchen; we followed to the large living-room, where I had been
before, and gathered round a small table; for these people, though
apparently poverty-stricken, ate their meals after the manner of
civilised beings. At the head of the table sat the fierce old
white-haired man, staring at us out of his sunken eyes as we entered.
Half rising from his seat, he mentioned to me to take a chair near
him, then, addressing Don Hilario, who sat opposite, he said, "This
is my son Calixto, just returned from the wars, where, as you know,
he has greatly distinguished himself."
Don Hilario rose and bowed gravely. Demetria took the other end of the
table, while Santos and Ramona occupied the two remaining seats.
I was greatly relieved to find that the old man's mood had changed;
there were no more wild outbursts like the one I had witnessed earlier
in the evening; only occasionally he would fix his strange, burning
eyes on me in a way that made me exceedingly uncomfortable. We began
the meal with broth, which we finished in silence; and while we ate,
Don Hilario's swift glances incessantly flew from face to face;
Demetria, pale and evidently ill at ease, keeping her eyes cast down
all the time.
"Is there no wine this evening, Ramona?" asked the old man in querulous
tones when the old woman rose to remove the broth basins.
"The _master_ has not ordered me to put any on the table," she
replied with asperity, and strongly emphasising the obnoxious word.
"What does this mean, Don Hilario?" said the old man, turning to his
neighbour. "My son has just returned after a long absence; are we to
have no wine for an occasion like this?"
Don Hilario, with a faint smile on his lips, drew a key from his pocket
and passed it silently to Ramona. She rose, muttering, from the table
and proceeded to unlock a cupboard, from which she took a bottle of
wine. Then, going round the table, she poured out half a tumblerful
for each person, excepting herself and Santos, who, to judge from his
stolid countenance, did not expect any.
"No, no," said old Peralta, "give Santos wine, and pour yourself out
a glass also, Ramona. You have both been good, faithful friends to me,
and have nursed Calixto in his infancy. It is right that you should
drink his health and rejoice with us at his return."
She obeyed with alacrity, and old Santos' wooden face almost relaxed
into a grin when he received his share of the purple fluid (I can
scarcely call it juice) which maketh glad the heart of man.
Presently old Peralta raised his glass and fixed his fierce, insane
eyes on me. "Calixto, my son, we will drink your health," he said,
"and may the curse of the Almighty fall on our enemies; may their
bodies lie where they fall, till the hawks have consumed their flesh,
and their bones have been trodden into dust by the cattle; and may
their souls be tormented with everlasting fire."
Silently they all raised their glasses to their lips, but when they
set them down again, the points of Don Hilario's black moustache were
raised as if by a smile, while Santos smacked his lips in token of
After this ghastly toast nothing more was spoken by anyone at the
table. In oppressive silence we consumed the roast and boiled meat set
before us; for I dared not hazard even the most commonplace remark for
fear of rousing my volcanic host into a mad eruption. When we had
finished eating, Demetria rose and brought her father a cigarette. It
was the signal that supper was over; and immediately afterwards she
left the room, followed by the two servants. Don Hilario politely
offered me a cigarette and lit one for himself. For some minutes we
smoked in silence, until the old man gradually dropped to sleep in his
chair, after which we rose and went back to the kitchen. Even that
sombre retreat now seemed cheerful after the silence and gloom of the
dining-room. Presently Don Hilario got up, and, with many apologies
for leaving me, explaining that he had been invited to assist at a
dance at a neighbouring _estancia_, took himself off. Soon
afterwards, though it was only about nine o'clock, I was shown to a
room where a bed had been prepared for me. It was a large,
musty-smelling apartment, almost empty, there being only my bed and
a few tall, upright chairs bound with leather and black with age. The
floor was tiled, and the ceiling was covered with a dusty canopy of
cobwebs, on which flourished a numerous colony of long-legged
house-spiders. I had no disposition to sleep at that early hour, and
even envied Don Hilario, away enjoying himself with the Rocha beauties.
My door, looking out to the front, was standing wide open; the full
moon had just risen and was filling the night with its mystic splendour.
Putting out my candle, for the house was now all dark and silent, I
softly went out for a stroll. Under a clump of trees not far off I
found an old rustic bench, and sat down on it; for the place was all
such a tangled wilderness of great weeds that walking was scarcely
practicable and very unpleasant.
The old, half-ruined house in the midst of the dusky desolation began
to assume in the moonlight a singularly weird and ghost-like appearance.
Near me on one side was an irregular row of poplar-trees, and the long,
dark lines cast from them by the moon fell across a wide, open space
where the rank-growing thorn-apples predominated. In the spaces between
the broad bands made by the poplar-tree shadows, the foliage appeared
of a dim, hoary blue, starred over with the white blossoms of this
night-flowering weed. About these flowers several big, grey moths were
hovering, suddenly appearing out of the black shadows and when looked
for, noiselessly vanishing again in their mysterious ghost-like manner.
Not a sound disturbed the silence except the faint, melancholy trill
of one small night-singing cicada from somewhere near--a faint, aerial
voice that seemed to be wandering lost in infinite space, rising and
floating away in its loneliness, while earth listened, hushed into
preternatural stillness. Presently a large owl came noiselessly flying
by, and, perching on the topmost boughs of a neighbouring tree, began
hooting a succession of monotonous notes, sounding like the baying of
a bloodhound at a vast distance. Another owl by and by responded from
some far-off quarter, and the dreary duet was kept up for half an hour.
Whenever one bird ceased his solemn _boo-boo-boo-boo-boo_, I found
myself with stilled breath straining my sense to catch the answering
notes, fearing to stir lest I should lose them. A phosphorescent gleam
swept by close to my face, making me start at its sudden appearance,
then passed away, trailing a line of faint light over the dusky weeds.
The passing firefly served to remind me that I was not smoking, and
the thought then occurred to me that a cigar might possibly have the
effect of relieving me from the strange, indefinable feeling of
depression that had come over me. I put my hand into my pocket and
drew out a cigar, and bit the end off; but when about to strike a vesta
on my matchbox, I shuddered and dropped my hand.
The very thought of striking a loud, exploding match was unendurable
to me, so strangely nervous did I feel. Or possibly it was a
superstitious mood I had fallen into. It seemed to me at that moment
that I had somehow drifted into a region of mystery, peopled only by
unearthly, fantastic beings. The people I had supped with did not seem
like creatures of flesh and blood. The small, dark countenance of Don
Hilario, with its shifty glances and Mephistophelian smile; Demetria's
pale, sorrowful face; and the sunken, insane eyes of her old,
white-haired father--were all about me in the moonlight and amongst
the tangled greenery. I dared not move; I scarcely breathed; the very
weeds with their pale, dusky leaves were like things that had a ghostly
life. And while I was in this morbid condition of mind, with that
irrational fear momentarily increasing on me, I saw at a distance of
about thirty yards a dark object, which seemed to move, fluttering in
an uncertain way towards me. I gazed intently on it, but it was
motionless now, and appeared like a black, formless shadow within the
shade of the trees. Presently it came again towards me, and, passing
into the clear moonlight, revealed a human figure. It flitted across
the bright space and was lost in the shade of other trees; but it still
approached, a waving, fluttering figure, advancing and receding, but
always coming nearer. My blood turned cold in my veins; I could feel
my hair standing up on my head, until, unable to endure the terrible
suspense longer, I jumped up from my seat. A loud exclamation of terror
came from the figure, and then I saw that it was Demetria. I stammered
out an apology for frightening her by jumping up, and, finding that
I had recognised her, she advanced to me.
"Ah, you are not asleep, señor," said she quietly. "I saw you from my
window come out here more than an hour ago. Finding you did not return,
I began to grow anxious, and thought that, tired with your journey,
you had fallen asleep out here. I came to wake you, and to warn you
that it is very dangerous to lie sleeping with your face exposed to
the full moon."
I explained that I had felt restless and disinclined to sleep, regretted
that I had caused her anxiety, and thanked her for her thoughtful
Instead of leaving me then, she sat quietly down on the bench. "Señor,"
she said, "if it is your intention to continue your journey to-morrow,
let me advise you not to do so. You can safely remain here for a few
days, for in this sad house we have no visitors."
I told her that, acting on Santa Coloma's advice, given to me before
the fight, I was going on to the Lomas de Rocha to see a person named
Florentino Blanco in that place, who would probably be able to procure
me a passport from Montevideo.
"How fortunate it is that you have told me this!" she replied. "Every
stranger now entering the Lomas is rigorously examined, and you could
not possibly escape arrest if you went there. Remain with us, señor;
it is a poor house, but we are well disposed towards you. To-morrow
Santos shall go with a letter from you to Don Florentino, who is always
ready to serve us, and he will do what you wish without seeking you."
I thanked her warmly and accepted the offer of a refuge in her house.
Somewhat to my surprise, she still remained seated on the bench.
Presently she said:
"It is natural, señor, that you should not be glad to remain in a house
so _triste_. But there will be no repetition of all you were
obliged to endure on first entering it. Whenever my father sees a young
man, a stranger to him, he receives him as he received you to-day,
mistaking him for his son. After the first day, however, he loses all
interest in the new face, becoming indifferent, and forgetting all he
has said or imagined."
This information relieved me, and I remarked that I supposed the loss
of his son had been the cause of his malady.
"You are right; let me tell you how it happened," she replied. "For
this _estancia_ must seem to you a place unlike all others in the
world, and it is only natural that a stranger should wish to know the
reason of its sad condition. I know that I can speak without fear of
these things to one who is a friend to Santa Coloma."
"And to you, I hope, señorita," I said.
"Thank you, señor. All my life has been spent here. When I was a child
my brother went into the army, then my mother died, and I was left
here alone, for the siege of Montevideo had begun and I could not go
there. At length my father received a terrible wound in action and was
brought here to die, as we thought. For months he lay on his bed, his
life trembling in the balance. Our enemies triumphed at last; the siege
was over, the Blanco leaders dead or driven into exile. My father had
been one of the bravest officers in the Blanco forces, and could not
hope to escape the general persecution. They only waited for his
recovery to arrest him and convey him to the capital, where, doubtless,
he would have been shot. While he lay in this precarious condition
every wrong and indignity was heaped upon us. Our horses were seized
by the commander of the department, our cattle slaughtered or driven
off and sold, while our house was searched for arms and visited every
week by an officer who came to report on my father's health. One reason
for this animosity was that Calixto, my brother, had escaped and
maintained a guerilla war against the government on the Brazilian
frontier. At length my father recovered so far from his wounds as to
be able to creep out for an hour every day leaning on someone for
support; then two armed men were sent to keep guard here to prevent
his escape. We were thus living in continual dread when one day an
officer came and produced a written order from the Comandante. He did
not read it to me, but said it was an order for every person in the
Rocha department to display a red flag on his house in token of
rejoicing at a victory won by the government troops. I told him that
we did not wish to disobey the Comandante's orders, but had no red
flag in the house to hang up. He answered that he had brought one for
that purpose with him. He unrolled it and fastened it to a pole; then,
climbing to the roof of the house, he raised and made it fast there.
Not satisfied with these insults, he ordered me to wake my father, who
was sleeping, so that he also might see the flag over his house. My
father came out leaning on my shoulder, and when he had cast up his
eyes and seen the red flag he turned and cursed the officer. 'Go back,'
he cried, 'to the dog, your master, and tell him that Colonel Peralta
is still a Blanco in spite of your dishonourable flag. Tell that
insolent slave of Brazil that when I was disabled I passed my sword
on to my son Calixto, who knows how to use it, fighting for his
country's independence.' The officer, who had mounted his horse by
this time, laughed, and, tossing the order from the _comandancia_
at our feet, bowed derisively and galloped away. My father picked up
the paper and read these words: 'Let there be displayed on every house
in this department a red flag, in token of joy at the happy tidings
of a victory won by the government troops, in which that recreant son
of the republic, the infamous assassin and traitor, Calixto Peralta,
was slain!' Alas, señor, loving his son above all things, hoping so
much from him, and enfeebled by long suffering, my poor father could
not resist this last blow. From that cruel moment he was deprived of
reason; and to that calamity we owe it that he was not put to death
and that our enemies ceased to persecute us."
Demetria shed some tears when telling me this tragical story. Poor
woman, she had said little or nothing about herself, yet how great and
enduring must have been her grief. I was deeply moved, and, taking her
hand, told her how deeply her sad story had pained me. Then she rose
and bade me good night with a sad smile--sad, but the first smile that
had visited her grief-clouded countenance since I had seen her. I could
well imagine that even the sympathy of a stranger must have seemed
sweet to her in that dreary isolation.
After she left me I lit my cigar. The night had lost its ghostly
character and my fantastic superstitions had vanished. I was back once
more in the world of men and women, and could only think of the
inhumanity of man to man, and of the infinite pain silently endured
by many hearts in that Purple Land. The only mystery still unsolved
in that ruinous _estancia_ was Don Hilario, who locked up the
wine and was called _master_ with bitter irony by Ramona, and who
had thought it necessary to apologise to me for depriving me of his
precious company that evening.
I spent several days with the Peraltas at their desolate,
_kineless_ cattle-farm, which was known in the country round
simply as _Estancia_ or _Campos de Peralta._ Such wearisome
days they proved to me, and so anxious was I getting about Paquíta
away in Montevideo, that I was more than once on the point of giving
up waiting for the passport, which Don Florentino had promised to get
for me, and boldly venture forth without even that fig-leaf into the
open. Demetria's prudent counsels, however, prevailed, so that my
departure was put off from day to day. The only pleasure I experienced
in the house arose from the belief I entertained that my visit had
made an agreeable break in the sad, monotonous life of my gentle
hostess. Her tragical story had stirred my heart to a very deep pity,
and as I grew every day to know her better I began to appreciate and
esteem her for her own pure, gentle, self-sacrificing character.
Notwithstanding the dreary seclusion in which she had lived, seeing
no society, and with only those old servants, so primitive in their
ways, for company, there was not the slightest trace of rusticity in
her manner. That, however, is not saying much for Demetria, since in
most ladies--most women I might almost say--of Spanish origin thereis a
natural grace and dignity of manner one only expects to find in
women socially well placed in our own country. When we were all together
at meals, or in the kitchen sipping _maté,_ she was invariably
silent, always with that shadow of some concealed anxiety on her face;
but when alone with me, or when only old Santos and Ramona were present,
the cloud would be gone, her eyes would lighten up and the rare smile
come more frequently to her lips. Then, at times, she would become
almost animated in conversation, listening with lively interest to all
I told her about the great world of which she was so ignorant, and
laughing, too, at her own ignorance of things known to every town-bred
child. When these pleasant conversations took place in the kitchen the
two old servants would sit gazing at the face of their mistress,
apparently absorbed in admiration. They evidently regarded her as the
most perfect being that had ever been created; and, though there was
a ludicrous side to their simple idolatry, I ceased to wonder at it
when I began to know her better. They reminded me of two faithful dogs
always watching a beloved master's face, and showing in their eyes,
glad or pathetic, how they sympathise with all his moods. As for old
Colonel Peralta, he did nothing to make me uneasy; after the first day
he never talked to me, scarcely even noticing my presence except to
salute me in a ceremonious manner when we met at table. He would spend
his day between his easy-chair in the house and the rustic bench under
the trees, where he would sit for hours at a time, leaning forward on
his stick, his preternaturally brilliant eyes watching everything
seemingly with a keen, intelligent interest. But he would not speak.
He was waiting for his son, thinking his fierce thoughts to himself.
Like a bird blown far out over a tumultuous sea and wandering lost,
his spirit was ranging over that wild and troubled past--that half a
century of fierce passions and bloody warfare in which he had acted
a conspicuous part. And perhaps it was sometimes even more in the
future than the past--that glorious future when Calixto, lying far off
in some mountain pass, or on some swampy plain with the trailing
creepers covering his bones, should come back victorious from the wars.
My conversations with Demetria were not frequent, and before long they
ceased altogether; for Don Hilario, who was not in harmony with us,
was always there, polite, subdued, watchful, but not a man that one
could take into his heart. The more I saw of him the less I liked him;
and, though I am not prejudiced about snakes, as the reader already
knows, believing as I do that ancient tradition has made us very unjust
towards these interesting children of our universal mother, I can think
of no epithet except _snaky_ to describe this man. Wherever I
happened to be about the place he had a way of coming upon me, stealing
through the weeds on his belly as it were, then suddenly appearing
unawares before me; while something in his manner suggested a subtle,
cold-blooded, venomous nature. Those swift glances of his, which
perpetually came and went with such bewildering rapidity, reminded me,
not of the immovable, stony gaze of the serpent's lidless eyes, but
of the flickering little forked tongue, that flickers, flickers,
vanishes and flickers again, and is never for one moment at rest. Who
was this man, and what did he there? Why was he, though manifestly not
loved by anyone, absolute master of the _estancia_? He never asked
me a question about myself, for it was not in his nature to ask
questions, but he had evidently formed some disagreeable suspicions
about me that made him look on me as a possible enemy. After I had
been a few days in the house he ceased going out, and wherever I went
he was always ready to accompany me, or when I met Demetria and began
conversing with her, there he would be to take part in our conversation.
At length the piece of paper so long waited for came from the Lomas
de Rocha, and with that sacred document, testifying that I was a subject
of Her Britannic Majesty, Queen Victoria, all fears and hesitation
were dismissed from my mind and I prepared to depart for Montevideo.
The instant Don Hilario heard that I was about to leave the
_estancia_ his manner toward me changed; he became, in a moment,
excessively friendly, pressing me to prolong my visit, also to accept
a horse from him as a gift, and saying many kind things about the
agreeable moments he had spent in my company. He completely reversed
the old saying about welcome the coming, speed the parting, guest; but
I knew very well that he was anxious enough to see the last of me.
After supper on the eve of my departure he saddled his horse and rode
off to attend a dance or gathering of some kind at a neighbouring
_estancia_, for now that he had recovered from his suspicions he
was very eager to resume the social pleasures my presence had interfered
I went out to smoke a cigar amongst the trees, it being a very lovely
autumnal evening, with the light of an unclouded new moon to temper
the darkness. I was walking up and down in a narrow path amongst the
weeds, thinking of my approaching meeting with Paquíta, when old Santos
came out to me and mysteriously informed me that Doña Demetria wished
to see me. He led me through the large room where we always had our
meals, then through a narrow, dimly lighted passage into another room
I had not entered before. Though the rest of the house was now in
darkness, the old colonel having already retired to bed, it was very
light here, there being about half a dozen candles placed about the
room. In the centre of the floor, with her old face beaming with
delighted admiration, stood Ramona, gazing on another person seated
on the sofa. And on this individual I also gazed silently for some
time; for, though I recognised Demetria in her, she was so changed
that astonishment prevented me from speaking. The rusty grub had come
forth as a splendid green and gold butterfly. She had on a grass-green
silk dress, made in a fashion I had never seen before; extremely high
in the waist, puffed out on the shoulders, and with enormous bell-shaped
sleeves reaching to the elbows, the whole garment being plentifully
trimmed with very fine cream-coloured lace. Her long, thick hair, which
had hitherto always been worn in heavy plaits on her back, was now
piled up in great coils on her head and surmounted by a tortoiseshell
comb a foot high at least, and about fifteen inches broad at the top,
looking like an immense crest on her head. In her ears were curious
gold filigree pendants reaching to her bare shoulders; she also wore
a necklet of half-doubloons linked together in a chain, and heavy gold
bracelets on her arms. It was extremely quaint. Possibly this finery
had belonged to her grandmother a hundred years ago; and I daresay
that bright green was not the proper tint for Demetria's pallid
complexion; still, I must confess, at the risk of being set down as
a barbarian in matters of taste, that it gave me a shock of pleasure
to see her. She saw that I was very much surprised, and a blush of
confusion overspread her face; then, recovering her usual quiet,
self-possessed manner, she invited me to sit on the sofa by her. I
took her hand and complimented her on her appearance. She laughed a
little shy laugh, then said that, as I was going to leave her next
day, she did not wish me to remember her only as a woman in rusty
black. I replied that I would always remember her not for the colour
and fashion of her garments, but for her great, unmerited misfortunes,
her virtuous heart, and for the kindness she had shown to me. My words
evidently pleased her, and while we sat together conversing pleasantly,
before us were Ramona and Santos, one standing, the other seated, both
feasting their eyes on their mistress in her brilliant attire. Their
delight was quite open and childlike, and gave an additional zest to
the pleasure I felt. Demetria seemed pleased to think she looked well,
and was more light-hearted than I had seen her before. That antique
finery, which would have been laughable on another woman, somehow or
other seemed appropriate to her; possibly because the strange simplicity
and ignorance of the world displayed in her conversation, and that
gentle dignity of manner natural to her, would have prevented her from
appearing ridiculous in any costume.
At length, after we had partaken of _maté_ served by Ramona, the
old servants retired from the room, not without many longing, lingering
glances at their metamorphosed mistress. Then somehow or other our
conversation began to languish, Demetria becoming constrained in manner,
while that anxious shadow I had grown so familiar with came again like
a cloud over her face. Thinking that it was time to leave her, I rose
to go, and thanked her for the pleasant evening I had spent, and
expressed a wish that her future would be brighter than her past had
"Thank you, Richard," she returned, her eyes cast down, and allowing
her hand to rest in mine. "But must you leave me so soon?--there is
so much I wish to say to you."
"I will gladly remain and hear it," I said, sitting down again by her
"My past has been very sad, as you say, Richard, but you do not know
all," and here she put her handkerchief to her eyes. There were, I
noticed, several beautiful rings on her fingers, and the handkerchief
she held to her eyes was a dainty little embroidered thing with a lace
border; for everything in her make-up was complete and in keeping that
evening. Even the quaint little shoes she wore were embroidered with
silver thread and had large rosettes on them. After removing the
handkerchief from her face, she continued silent and with eyes cast
down, looking very pale and troubled.
"Demetria," I said, "tell me how I can serve you? I cannot guess the
nature of the trouble you speak of, but if it is one I can help you
out of, speak to me without reserve."
"Perhaps you can help me, Richard. It was of this matter I wished to
speak this evening. But now--how can I speak of it?"
"Not to one who is your friend, Demetria? I wish you could think that
the spirit of your lost brother Calixto was here in me, for I am as
ready to help you as he would have been; and I know, Demetria, that
you were very dear to him."
Her face flushed, and for a moment her eyes met mine; then, casting
them down again, she replied sadly, "It is impossible! I can say no
more to you now. My heart oppresses me so that my lips refuse to speak.
"To-morrow morning I leave you, and there will be no opportunity of
speaking," I said. "Don Hilario will be here watching you, and, though
he is so much in the house, I cannot believe that you trust him."
She started at the name of Don Hilario, and cried a little in silence;
then suddenly she rose and gave me her hand to bid good night. "You
shall know everything to-morrow, Richard," she said. "Then you will
know how much I trust you and how little I trust him. I cannot speak
myself, but I can trust Santos, who knows everything, and he shall
tell you all."
There was a sad, wistful look in her eyes when we parted that haunted
me for hours afterwards. Coming into the kitchen, I disturbed Ramona
and Santos deep in a whispered consultation. They started up, looking
somewhat confused; then, when I had lit a cigar and turned to go out,
they got up and went back to their mistress.
While I smoked I pondered over the strange evening I had passed,
wondering very much what Demetria's secret trouble could be. "The
mystery of the green butterfly," I called it; but it was really all
too sad even for a mental joke, though a little timely laughter is
often the best weapon to meet trouble with, sometimes having an effect
like that of a gay sunshade suddenly opened in the face of an angry
bull. Unable to solve the riddle, I retired to my room to sleep my
last sleep under Peralta's dreary roof.
About eight o'clock next morning I bade the Peraltas goodbye, and set
out on my long-delayed journey, still mounted on that dishonestly
acquired steed that had served me so well, for I had declined the good
Hilario's offer of a horse. Though all my toils, wanderings, and many
services to the cause of liberty (or whatever people fight for in the
Banda) had not earned me one copper coin, it was some comfort to think
that Candelaria's never-to-be-forgotten generosity had saved me from
being penniless; I was, in fact, returning to Paquíta well dressed,
on a splendid horse, and with dollars enough in my pocket to take us
comfortably out of the country. Santos rode out with me, ostensibly
to put me on the right road to Montevideo; only I knew, of course,
that he was the bearer of an important communication from Demetria.
When we had ridden about half a league without any approach to the
subject on his part, in spite of sundry hints I threw out, I asked him
plainly if he had a message for me.
After pondering over the question for as long a time as would be
necessary to work out a rather difficult mathematical problem, he
answered that he had.
"Then," said I, "let me hear it."
He grinned. "Do you think," he said, "that it is a thing to be spoken
in half a dozen words? I have not come all this distance merely to say
that the moon came in dry, or that yesterday, being Friday, Doña
Demetria tasted no meat. It is a long story, señor."
"How many leagues long? Do you intend it to last all the way to
Montevideo? The longer it is the sooner you ought to begin it."
"There are things easy to say, and there are other things not so easy,"
returned Santos. "But as to saying anything on horseback, who could
"The question!" said he. "Have you not observed that when liquor is
drawn from a cask--wine, or bitter orange-juice to make orangeade, or
even rum, which is by nature white and clear--that it runs thick when
the cask is shaken? It is the same with us, señor; our brain is the
cask out of which we draw all the things we say."
"And the spigot--"
"That is so," he struck in, pleased with my ready intelligence; "the
mouth is the spigot."
"I should have thought the nose more like the spigot," I replied.
"No," he gravely returned. "You can make a loud noise with the nose
when you snore or blow it in a handkerchief; but it has no door of
communication with the brain. The things that are in the brain flow
out by the mouth."
"Very well," said I, getting impatient, "call the mouth spigot,
bung-hole, or what you like, and the nose merely an ornament on the
cask. The thing is this: Doña Demetria has entrusted you with some
liquor to pass on to me; now pass it, thick or clear."
"Not thick," he answered stubbornly.
"Very well; clear then," I shouted.
"To give it to you clear I must give it off and not on my horse, sitting
still and not moving."
Anxious to have it over without more beating about the bush, I reined
up my horse, jumped off, and sat down on the grass without another
word. He followed my example, and, after seating himself in a
comfortable position, deliberately drew out his tobacco-pouch and began
making a cigarette. I could not quarrel with him for this further
delay, for without the soothing, stimulating cigarette an Oriental
finds it difficult to collect his thoughts. Leaving him to carry out
his instructions in his own laborious fashion, I vented my irritation
on the grass, plucking it up by handfuls.
"Why do you do that?" he asked, with a grin.
"Pluck grass? What a question! When a person sits down on the grass,
what is the first thing he does?"
"Makes a cigarette," he returned.
"In my country he begins plucking up the grass," I said.
"In the Banda Orientál we leave the grass for the cattle to eat," said
I at once gave up pulling the grass, for it evidently distracted his
mind, and, lighting a cigarette, began smoking as placidly as I could.
At length he began: "There is not in all the Banda Orientál a worse
person to express things than myself."
"You are speaking the truth," I said.
"But what is to be done?" he continued, staring straight before him
and giving as little heed to my interruption as a hunter riding at a
stiff fence would pay to a remark about the weather. "When a man cannot
get a knife, he breaks in two an old pair of sheep-shears, and with
one of the blades makes himself an implement which has to serve him
for a knife. This is how it is with Doña Demetria; she has no one but
her poor Santos to speak for her. If she had asked me to expose my
life in her service, that I could easily have done; but to speak for
her to a man who can read the almanac and knows the names of all the
stars in the sky, that kills me, señor. And who knows this better than
my mistress, who has been intimate with me from her infancy, when I
often carried her in my arms? I can only say this, señor; when I speak,
remember my poverty and that my mistress has no instrument except my
poor tongue to convey her wishes. Words has she told me to say to you,
but my devil of a memory has lost them all. What am I to do in this
case? If I wished to buy my neighbour's horse, and went to him and
said, 'Sell me your horse, neighbour, for I have fallen in love with
it and my heart is sick with desire, so that I must have it at any
price,' would that not be madness, señor? Yet I must be like that
imprudent person. I come to you for something, and all her expressions,
which were like rare flowers culled from a garden, have been lost by
the way. Therefore I can only say this thing which my mistress desires,
putting it in my own brute words, which are like wild flowers I have
myself gathered on the plain, that have neither fragrance nor beauty
to recommend them."
This quaint exordium did not advance matters much, but it had the
effect of rousing my attention and convincing me that the message
entrusted to Santos was one of very grave import. He had finished his
first cigarette and now began slowly making himself a second one; but
I waited patiently for him to speak, my irritation had quite vanished,
those "wild flowers" of his were not without beauty, and his love and
devotion for his unhappy mistress made them smell very sweet.
Presently he resumed: "Señor, you have told my mistress that you are
a poor man; that you look upon this country life as a free and happy
one; that above all things you would like to possess an _estancia_
where you could breed cattle and race-horses and hunt ostriches. All
this she has revolved in her mind, and because it is in her power to
offer you the things you desire does she now ask you to aid her in her
trouble. And now, señor, let me tell you this. The Peralta property
extends all the way to the Rocha waters; five leagues of land, and
there is none better in this department. It was formerly well stocked.
There were thousands of cattle and mares; for my master's party then
ruled in the country; the Colorados were shut up in Montevideo, and
that cut-throat Frutos Rivera never came into this part. Of the cattle
only a remnant remains, but the land is a fortune for any man, and,
when my old master dies, Doña Demetria inherits all. Even now it is
hers, since her father has lost his calabash, as you have seen. Now
let me tell you what happened many years ago. Don Hilario was at first
a peon--a poor boy the Colonel befriended. When he grew up he was made
_capatas,_ then _mayordomo._ Don Calixto was killed and the
Colonel lost his reason, then Don Hilario made himself all-powerful,
doing what he liked with his master, and setting Doña Demetria's
authority aside. Did he protect the interests of the _estancia?_
On the contrary, he was one with our enemies, and when they came like
dogs for our cattle and horses he was behind them. This he did to make
friends of the reigning party, when the Blancos had lost everything.
Now he wishes to marry Doña Demetria to make himself owner of the land.
Don Calixto is dead, and who is there to bell the cat? Even now he
acts like the only owner; he buys and sells and the money is his. My
mistress is scarcely allowed clothes to wear; she has no horse to ride
on and is a prisoner in her own house. He watches her like a cat
watching a bird shut in a room; if he suspected her of an intention
to make her escape he would murder her. He has sworn to her that unless
she marries him he will kill her. Is not this sad? Señor, she asks you
to deliver her from this man. Her words I have forgotten, but imagine
that you see her before you a suppliant on her knees, and that you
know what the thing is she asks, and see her lips move, though you do
not hear her words."
"Tell me how I can deliver her?" I said, feeling very much moved at
what I had heard.
"How! By carrying her off forcibly--do you understand? Is it not in
your power to return in a few days' time with two or three friends to
do this thing? You must come disguised and armed. If I am in the way
I will do what I can to protect her, but you will easily knock me down
and stun me--do you understand? Don Hilario must not know that we are
in the plot. From him fear nothing, for, though he is brave enough to
threaten a woman with death, before armed men he is like a dog that
hears thunder. You can then take her to Montevideo and conceal her
there. The rest will be easy. Don Hilario will fail to find her; Ramona
and I will take care of the Colonel, and when his daughter is out of
his sight perhaps he will forget her. Then, señor, there will be no
trouble about the property; for who can resist a legal claim?"
"I do not understand you, Santos," said I. "If Demetria wishes me to
do what you say, and there is no other way to save her from Don
Hilario's persecutions, I will do it. I will do anything to serve her,
and I have no fear of that dog Hilario. But when I have placed her in
concealment, who in Montevideo, where she is without a friend, will
take up her cause and see that she is not defrauded of her rights? I
can give her liberty, but that will be all."
"The property will be the same as yours when you marry her," said he.
I had never suspected that this was coming, and was amazed to hear it.
"Will you tell me, Santos," said I, "that Demetria sent you to say
this to me? Does she think that only by marrying her I can deliver her
from this robber and save her property?"
"There is, of course, no other way," said he. "If it could be done by
other means, would she not have spoken last night and explained
everything to you? Consider, señor, all this large property will be
yours. If you do not like this department, then she will sell everything
for you to buy an _estancia_ elsewhere, or to do whatever you
wish. And I ask you this, señor, could any man marry a better woman?"
"No," said I; "but, Santos, I cannot marry your mistress."
I remembered then, sadly enough, that I had told her next to nothing
about myself. Seeing me so young, wandering homeless about the country,
she had naturally taken me for a single man; and, perhaps thinking
that I had conceived an affection for her, had been driven in her
despair to make this proposal. Poor Demetria, was there to be no
deliverance for her after all!
"Friend," said Santos, dropping the ceremonious señor in his anxiety
to serve his mistress, "never speak without first considering all
things. There is no woman like her. If you do not love her now you
will love her when you know her better; no good man could help feeling
affection for her. You saw her last evening in a green silk dress,
also wearing a tortoise-shell comb and gold ornaments--was she not
elegant, señor? Did she not then appear to your eyes a woman suitable