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Chapter Eight

A WAGON-LOAD OF BICHOS

In conclusion, it appears to me that nothing can be more improving to a young naturalist than a journey in distant countries.

CHARLES DARWIN: The Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle
The Whispering Land

By now my collection of creatures had grown to such an extent that it was a whole-time job[423] looking after it. No longer could I go off for three or four days at a time and leave poor Edna to cherish my creatures. Also I was busy building cages for those tame animals, which, up until now, had either been at complete liberty, or spent their time tethered, but on leashes. I had originally intended to fly my collection back to Buenos Aires, but the air freight estimate, when it arrived, looked as if it had been worked out by the Astronomer Royal in light-years.[424]

There was nothing for it,[425] I would have to go by train, a two-day and three-night journey that I did not relish, but there was no alternative. Charles arranged the whole thing for me with a speed and efficiency that was typical of him. This in spite of the fact that he had his own work to do, as well as being extremely worried over his wife Joan, who was ill in hospital. So I hammered and sawed in the garden, getting cages ready for my train-journey, and keeping a stern eye on those animals, which were still loose and therefore liable to get up to mischief.

The biggest of the still un-caged animals were the coatimundis, Martha and Mathias, who, on collars and chains, wore tethered under the trees. I am fond of coatimundis, though they are not everyone's idea of the most charming of animals. But I find something very appealing about their long, rubbery, tip-tilted noses, their pigeon-toed,[426] bear-like walk, and the way they hold their long, ringed tails straight up in the air when they move, like furry exclamation marks. In the wild state they are gregarious, travelling through the forest in quite large parties, uprooting logs and stones, snuffling in every nook and cranny with their vacuum-cleaner-like noses for their prey, which may range from beetles to birds and from fruit to mushrooms. Like most small, gregarious mammals they have quite an extensive vocabulary, and the conversation of a troup of coatimundis would, I am sure, repay investigation. Mathias would converse with me by the hour[427] in a series of birdlike squeaks and trills; if, when investigating a rotten log or a stone, he thought he was nearing a succulent beetle or slug, the sounds would turn to snuffling grunts, pitched in different keys, and interspersed with a strange champing noise made by chattering his teeth together at great speed. When in a rage he would chitter violently, his whole body shaking as if with ague, and give prolonged, piercing whistling cries that would almost burst your ear drums.

Both the coatimundis had fairly long leashes, which were attached to a convenient tree. When they had uprooted and investigated every log and stone within the circle of the leash, they were moved to a fresh tree. Every time this happened, Mathias would spend ten minutes or so marking out his circle of territory with the scent gland[428] at the base of his tail. He would solemnly shuffle his way round in a circle, a look of immense concentration on his face, squatting down at intervals to rub his hindquarters on a convenient rock or stick. Having thus, as it were, hoisted the coatimundi equivalent of the flag,[429] he would relax and settle down to the task of beetle-hunting with a clear conscience. If any of the local dogs were so misguided as to approach his territory they never did it a second time. He would walk slowly towards them, champing his teeth alarmingly, his tail erect, stiff as a poker, and puffed up to twice its normal size. Having got within range[430] he would suddenly dart forward in a curious, rolling run, uttering his piercing ear-splitting screams. This ghastly noise had the effect of undermining the morale of any but the bravest dog, and, when they had hurriedly retreated, Mathias, quietly chattering and trilling to himself, would wend his way round in a circle, re-marking his entire territory. During all this, Martha would be sitting at the extreme limit of her chain, watching Mathias with adoring eyes, and uttering tiny squeaks of encouragement.

All the other creatures I had acquired were doing splendidly. Juanita, the peccary, grew fatter and more charming each day, and lorded it over the parrots.[431] My precious yellow-naped macaws had given me heart failure by appearing to go into a decline; I eventually discovered they were not ill but, for some obscure reason, wanted to sleep inside a box at night, a fact that I discovered quite by accident. As soon as they were supplied with a sleeping box their appetites revived and they started to do well. Among the cats the little Geoffrey's was now quite reconciled to captivity, and played such strenuous games of hide-and-seek with his tabby kitten companion, as well as a game they had invented which appeared to be called "Strangle Your Neighbour",[432] that I began to wonder if I would get them to Buenos Aires alive, let alone[433] Jersey. Luna the puma had tamed down a lot, and even condescended to allow me to scratch her behind the ears, while she rumbled contentedly deep in her throat. The poor half-starved ocelot was now fat and glossy. Having lost the apathy of starvation, she was now very full of herself and regarded the interior of her cage as sacred, so the process of cleaning her out or feeding her was fraught with danger. Thus are one's kindnesses sometimes repaid.

Among the new creatures which I had added to my collection were two of the most enchanting members of the monkey tribe, a pair of douroucoulis[434] which had been caught in the forest by an Indian hunter. He had been a very good hunter, but unfortunately I had paid him rather too lavishly for the monkeys, and, overcome by the size of the payment, he had retired to the village and stayed drunk ever since, so these were the last specimens I got from him. There is quite an art in paying the right amount for an animal, and by paying too much you can easily lose a good hunter, for between your camp and the forest always lies a series of gin-shops, and hunters are notoriously weak-willed.

Douroucoulis are the only nocturnal monkeys in the world, and from that point of view alone would be remarkable. But when you add to that the fact that they look like a cross between an owl and a clown, that they are the gentlest of monkeys, and that they spend a lot of time clasped in each other's arms exchanging the most human kisses, then douroucoulis become, so far as I am concerned, irresistible. They have the huge eyes, typical of a nocturnal creature, surrounded by a white facial mask edged with black. The shape of the mouth gives you the impression that they are just about to break into a rather sad, slightly pitying smile. Their hacks and tails are a pleasant shade of greenish-grey, and they possess great fluffy shirt-fronts that vary from pale yellow to deep orange, according to age. In the wilds these monkeys, like the coatimundis, are gregarious, travelling through the trees with silent leaps in troupes of ten to fifteen animals. The only time they make any sound is when feeding, and then they converse among themselves with loud, purring grunts which swell their throats up, or a series of bird-like tweets, cat-like mewing, pig-like snufflings and snake-like hissings. The first time I heard them feeding among the dark trees in the forest I identified them as each of these animals in turn, and then became so muddled I was convinced I had found something new to science. I used to dig large red beetles out of the rotting palm-trees for the douroucoulis, insects of which they were inordinately fond. They would watch my approach with the titbits their eyes wide, their hands held out beseechingly trembling slightly, uttering faint squeaks of excitement. They would clasp the wriggling beetles in their hands with the awkward grace of a young child accepting a stick of rock,[435] and chew and scrunch their way through them, pausing now and again to utter squeaks of joy. When the last piece had been chewed and swallowed, they would carefully examine their hands, both back and front, to make sure there was none left, and then examine each other for the same reason. Having convinced themselves that no fragment remained, they would clasp each other and kiss passionately for five minutes or so, in what appeared to be an orgy of mutual congratulation.

It was just after I had acquired these delightful monkeys that I had my encounter with a curious human being, and my introduction to him was due to Luna. He appeared one morning and said that business was to take him to a place a few miles away from Calilegua. In this village he had to visit he had heard rumours of a man who was interested in animals and even kept them as pets.

"All I can find out is that his name is Coco, and that everyone there says he is loco, Gerry," said Luna. "But you might like to come and see."

"All right," I said, nothing loath to leaving[436] my sweat-provoking carpentry for a while, "but can you wait until I've cleaned and fed the animals?"

"O. K.," said Luna, and lay patiently on the lawn scratching Juanita's stomach until I had finished my chores.

The village, when we reached it, proved to be a large, straggling one, with a curious dead air about it. Even the houses, constructed as usual with the off-cuts from tree-trunks, had an ill-kempt, dirty look. Everything looked scruffy and depressed. But everyone appeared to know Coco, for when we inquired in the local bar where he lived a forest of hands directed us, and everyone smiled and said, "Ah, yes, Coco," as if they were referring to the village idiot. Following directions we found his house easily enough.


The Whispering Land

It would have been very noticeable anyway, for in comparison to the rest of the village, it gleamed like a gem. It had been carefully whitewashed, so that it shone; its front garden was neatly tended and, incredibly, a real gravel path, neatly raked, led up to the house. I decided that if this was the house of the village idiot, then I very much wanted to meet him. In response to our clapping a slight, dark woman appeared, who looked as though she might be Italian. She admitted to being Coco's wife, but said that he was not at home: he worked during the day at the local saw-mill, which we could hear humming in the distance like all the bees in the universe having a conference. Luna explained my mission, and the wife's face lighted up.

"Oh," she said, "I will send one of the children to fetch him. He would never forgive me if he missed meeting you. Please come round to the back and wait he will come in a few moments."

The garden at the back of the house was as well tended as the front, and, to my surprise, contained two well-constructed and spacious aviaries.[437] I peered into them hopefully, but they were both empty. We did not have to wait long for Coco's appearance. He appeared from the path leading to the saw-mill at a brisk trot, and arrived, breathing deeply, in front of us and doffed his straw hat. He was a short, well-built man with coal-black, curly hair and (unusual in Argentina) a thick black beard and moustache, carefully trimmed. His eyes were dark, and shone with eagerness as he held out a well-shaped brown hand to Luna and myself.

"Welcome, welcome," he said, "you must excuse, please, my English she is not good for I have no chance to practise."

The fact that he could speak English at all amazed me.

"You have no idea what this means to me," he said eagerly, wringing my hand, "to speak with someone who has an interest in Nature if my wife had not called me I would never have forgiven her I could not believe it when my son told me an Englishman to see me, and about animals, too."


He smiled at me, his face still slightly awe-stricken at this miracle that had happened. One would have thought that I had come to offer him the Presidency of Argentina. I was so overwhelmed at being greeted like a newly-descended angel that I was almost at a loss for words.

"Well," said Luna, having obviously decided that he had done his job by bringing one lunatic in contact with another, "I will go and do my work and see you later." He drifted off, humming to himself, while Coco seized my arm gently, as though it were a butterfly's wing that he might damage, and urged me up the steps and into the living-room of his house. Here his wife had produced wonderful lemonade from fresh lemons, heavily sweetened, and we sat at the table and drank this while Coco talked. He spoke quietly, stumbling occasionally in his English and saying a sentence in Spanish when he realised I knew enough of the language to follow. It was an extraordinary experience, like listening to a man who had been dumb for years suddenly recover the power of speech. He had been living for so long in a world of his own, for neither his wife, children nor anyone in the fly-blown[438] village could understand his interests. To him I was the incredible answer to a prayer, a man who had suddenly appeared from nowhere, a man who could understand what he meant when he said that a bird was beautiful, or an animal was interesting, someone, in fact, who could speak this language that had been so long locked up inside him, which no one around him comprehended. All the time he spoke he watched me with an embarrassing expression, a mixture of awe and fear awe that I should be there at all, and fear that I might suddenly disappear like a mirage.

"It is the birds that I am particularly studying," he said. "I know the birds of Argentina are catalogued, but who knows anything about them? Who knows their courtship displays, their type of nests, how many eggs they lay, how many broods they have, if they migrate? Nothing is known of this, and this is the problem. In this field I am trying to help, as well as I can."

"This is the problem all over the world," I said, "we know what creatures exist or most of them but we know nothing of their private lives."

"Would you like to see the place where I work?. I call it my study," he explained deprecatingly, "it is very small, but all I can afford"

"I would love to see it," I said.

Eagerly he led me outside to where a sort of miniature wing had been built on to the side of the house. The door that led into this was heavily padlocked. As he pulled a key from his pocket to open this he smiled at me.

"I let no one in here," he explained simply, "they do not understand."

Up until then I had been greatly impressed with Coco, and with his obvious enthusiasm for animal life. But now, being led into his study, I was more than impressed. I was speechless.

His study was about eight feet long and six feet wide. In one corner was a cabinet[439] which housed, as he showed me, his collection of bird and small mammal skins, and various birds' eggs. Then there was a long, low bench on which he did his skinning, and nearby a rough bookcase containing some fourteen volumes on natural history, some in Spanish, some in English. Under the one small window stood an easel, and on it the half-finished water colour of a bird, whose corpse lay nearby on a box.

"Did you do that?" I asked incredulously.

"Yes," he said shyly, "you see, I could not afford a camera, and this was the only way to record their plum-age."

I gazed at the half-finished picture. It was beautifully done, with a fineness of line and colouring that was amazing. I say amazing because the drawing and painting of birds is one of the most difficult of subjects in the whole natural history field. Here was work that was almost up to the standards of some of the best modern bird painters I had seen. You could see that it was the work of an untrained person, but it was done with meticulous accuracy and love, and the bird glowed on the page. I had the dead specimen in my hand to compare the painting with, and I could see that this painting was far better than a lot I had seen published in bird books.

He pulled out a great folder and showed me his other work. He had some forty paintings of birds, generally in pairs if there was any sexual difference in the plumage, and they were all as good as the first one I had seen.

"But these are terribly good," I said, "You must do something with them."

"Do you think so?" he inquired doubtfully, peering at the paintings. "I have sent some to the man in charge of the Museum at Cordoba, and he liked them. He said we should have a small book printed when I have enough of them, but this I think is doubtful, for you know how costly a production would be."

"Well, I know the people in charge of the Museum at Buenos Aires," I said. "I will speak to them about you. I don't guarantee anything, but they might be able to help."

"That would be wonderful," he said, his eyes shining. "Tell me," I said, "do you like your work here in the saw-mill?"

"Like it?" he repeated incredulously, "like it? Senior, it is soul-destroying. But it provides me with enough to live on, and by careful saving I have enough left over to buy paints. Also I am saving to buy a small cine-camera, for however skilful you are as a painter there are certain things that birds do which can only be captured on film. But these cine-cameras are very expensive, and I am afraid it will be a long time before I can afford it."

He talked on for an hour or so, quickly, enthusiastically, telling me what he had accomplished and what he hoped to do. I had to keep reminding myself that this was a man a peasant, if you prefer the term who worked in a saw-mill and lived in a house which, though spotless, no so-called "worker" in England would be seen dead in. To have discovered Coco in the outskirts of Buenos Aires would not have been, perhaps, so incredible, but to find him here in this remote, unlikely spot, was like suddenly coming across a unicorn in the middle of Piccadilly.[440] And, although he explained to me the difficulties of saving enough money to buy paints, and enough to buy his dream cine-camera, there was never once the slightest suggestion that financial aid might be forthcoming from me. He was simply, with the naivet'e of a child, discussing his problems with someone he felt would understand and appreciate what he was doing. To him I must have represented a millionaire, yet I knew that if I offered him money I would cease to be his friend, and become as the other inhabitants of the village, a person who did not understand. The most I could do was to promise to speak to the Museum in Buenos Aires (for good bird-painters are not two a penny[441]) and to give him my card, and tell him that if there was anything that he wanted from England which he could not obtain in Argentina, to let me know and I would send it to him. When, eventually, Luna reappeared and we simply had to leave, Coco said goodbye wistfully, rather like a child who had been allowed to play with a new toy, and then had it taken away. As we drove off he was standing in the centre of the dusty, rutted street, watching the car and turning my card over and over in his hands, as if it were some sort of talisman.

Unfortunately, on my way down to Buenos Aires I lost Coco's address, and I did not discover the loss until I got back to England. But he had mine, and I felt sure that he would write and ask me to send him a bird book or perhaps some paints, for such things are hard to get in Argentina. But there was no word from him. Then, when Christmas came, I sent him a card, and in it I reiterated my offer to send him anything he needed. I sent the card care of Charles,[442] at Calilegua, who kindly drove out and delivered it to Coco. Then Coco wrote to me, a charming letter, in which he apologised for his bad English, but he thought that, nevertheless, it was improving slightly. He gave me news of his birds and his painting. But there was not a single request in the letter. So, at the risk of offending him, I packed up a parcel of books that I thought would be of the greatest use to him, and shipped them off. And now, when I get disgruntled with my lot, when I get irritated because I can't afford some new animal, or a new book, or a new gadget for my camera, I remember Coco in his tiny study, working hard and enthusiastically with inadequate tools and money, and it has a salutary effect on me. On the way back to Calilegua Luna asked me what I had thought of Coco, since everyone in the village thought he was loco. I said he was, in my opinion, one of the sanest men I had ever met, and certainly one of the most remarkable. I hope that some day I have the privilege of meeting him again.

On the way back to Calilegua we stopped briefly at another village where Luna had heard a rumour that some bicho was being kept. To my delight it turned out to be a fully adult male peccary, ridiculously tame, and the perfect mate for Juanita. Ha was called, by his owner, Juan, and so we purchased him, and put him, grunting excitedly, into the back of the car and drove back to Calilegua in triumph. Juan, however, was so large, clumsy and eagerly tame that I felt he might, in all innocence, damage Juanita, who was only a quarter his size, and very fragile, so I was forced to cage them separately until Juanita had grown sufficiently. However, they touched noses through the bars, and seemed to be delighted with each other, so I had hope of eventually arranging a successful marriage.

At last the day came when I had to leave Calilegua. I did not want to leave a bit, for everyone had been too kind to me. Joan and Charles, Helmuth and Edna, and the human nightingale Luna, had accepted me, this complete stranger, into their lives, allowed me to disrupt their routine, showered me with kindness and done everything possible to help in my work. But, although I had been a stranger on arrival in Calilegua, such was the kindness shown to me that within a matter of hours I felt I had been there for years. To say that I was sorry to leave these friends was putting it mildly.

My journey was, in the first stages, slightly complicated. I had to take the collection on the small railway that ran from Calilegua to the nearest big town. Here everything had to be transshipped on to the Buenos Aires train. Charles, realising that I was worried about the transshipment side of the business, insisted that Luna travelled with me as far as the main town, and that he, Helmuth and Edna (for Joan was still ill) would drive into the town and meet us there, to sort out any difficulties. I protested at the amount of trouble this would put them to, but they shouted my protests down, and Edna said that if she was not allowed to see me off she would give me no more gin that evening. This frightful threat squashed my protests effectively.

So, on the morning of departure, a tractor dragging a giant flat cart arrived outside Charles's house, and the crates of animals were piled up on it and then driven slowly to the station. Here we stacked them on the platform, and awaited the arrival of the train. I felt distinctly less happy when I examined the railway lines. They were worn right down, obviously never having been replaced for years. In places the weight of the train had pushed both the sleeper[443] and the track so far into the ground that, from certain angles, they seemed to disappear altogether. There was such a riot of weeds and grass growing all over the track anyway, that it was difficult enough to see where the railway began and the undergrowth ended. I estimated that if the train travelled at anything more than five miles an hour on such a track we were going to have the train crash of the century.[444]

"This is nothing," said Charles proudly, when I protested at the state of the lines, "this is good compared to some parts of the track."

"And I thought the plane I came in was dangerous enough," I said, "but this is pure suicide. You can't even call them railway lines, they're both so bent they look like a couple of drunken snakes."

"Well, we haven't had an accident yet," said Charles. And with this cheerful news I had to be content. When the train eventually came into view it was so startling that it drove all thoughts about the state of the track out of my head. The carriages were wooden, and looked like the ones you see in old Western films.[445] But it was the engine that was so remarkable. It was obviously an old one, again straight out of a Wild West film, with a gigantic cowcatcher[446] in front. But someone, obviously dissatisfied with its archaic appearance, had attempted to liven it up a bit, and had streamlined it with sheets of metal, painted in broad orange, yellow and scarlet stripes. It was, to say the least, the gayest engine I had ever seen; it looked as though it had just come straight from a carnival as it swept down towards us at a majestic twenty miles an hour, the overgrown track covering the rails so successfully that the thing looked as though it was coming straight across country. It roared into the station with a scream of brakes, and then proudly let out a huge cloud of pungent black smoke that enveloped us all. Hastily we pushed the animal crates into the guard's van, Luna and I went and got ourselves a wooden seat in the compartment next door, and then, with a great jerk and a shudder, the train was off.

For most of the way the road ran parallel with the railway, only separated by a tangle of grass and shrubs, and a low barbed-wire fence. So Charles, Helmuth and Edna, drove along parallel with our carriage, shouting insults and abuse at us, shaking their fists and accusing Luna and myself of a rich variety of crimes. The other passengers were at first puzzled, and then, when they realised the joke, they joined in heartily, even suggesting a few choice insults we could shout back. When Helmuth accused Luna of having a voice as sweet as that of a donkey suffering from laryngitis, the orange that Luna hurled out of the train window missed Helmuth's head by only a fraction of an inch. It was childish, but it was fun, and the whole train joined in. At each of the numerous little stations we had to stop at, the idiots in the car would drive on ahead, and be there on the platform to present me with a huge bouquet of wilting flowers, after which I would make a long and impassioned speech in modern Greek[447] out of the train window, to the complete mystification of the passengers who had only just joined the train, and obviously thought that I was some sort of visiting politician. So we enjoyed ourselves hugely until we reached the town where I was to change trains. Here we piled the collection carefully on the platform, posted a porter in charge to keep people from annoying the animals, and went to have a meal, for there were several hours to wait before the Buenos Aires train got in.

When we reassembled dusk had fallen, and the Buenos Aires train puffed and rumbled its way into the station in an impressive cloud of sparks and steam. But it was just an ordinary engine, and bore not the remotest resemblance to the vivid, lurching dragon that had transported us so nobly from Calilegua. Helmuth, Luna and I carefully stacked the animals into the van that I had hired, and which proved to be far smaller than I anticipated. Charles, meanwhile, had run my sleeping berth to earth,[448] and put my things inside. I was to share it with three other people, but none of them was present, and so I could only hope that they would be interesting. Then, with, nothing to do but wait for departure, I squatted on the steps leading from the carriage, while the others gathered in a group around me. Edna fumbled in her bag, and then held up something that glinted in the dim lights of the station. A bottle of gin.

"A parting present," she said, grinning at me wickedly, "I could not bear to think of you travelling all that way without any food."

"Helmuth," I said, as Luna went of in search of tonic water and glasses. "You have a wife in a million."

"Maybe" said Helmuth gloomily, "but she only does this for you, Gerry. She never gives me gin when I go away. She just tells me that I drink too much."

So, standing on the station, we toasted each other. I had just finished my drink when the guard's whistle squealed, and the train started to move. Still clutching their drinks the others ran alongside to shake my hand, and I nearly fell out of the train kissing Edna goodbye. The train gathered speed, and I saw them in a group under the dim station lights, holding up their glasses in a last toast, before they were lost to view, andI went gloomily to my compartment, carrying the remains of the gin.

The train journey was not quite as bad as I had anticipated, although, naturally, travelling on an Argentine train with forty-odd cages[449] of assorted livestock, is no picnic. My chief fear was that during the night (or day) at some station or other, they would shunt my carriage-load of animals into a aiding and forget to reattach it. This awful experience had once happened to an animal-collector friend of mine in South America, and by the time he had discovered his loss and raced back to the station in a hired car, nearly all his specimens were dead. So I was determined that, whenever we stopped, night or day, I was going to be out on the platform to make sure my precious cargo was safe. This extraordinary behaviour of leaping out of my bunk in the middle of the night puzzled my sleeping companions considerably. They were three young and charming footballers, returning from Chile where they had been playing. As soon as I explained my actions to them, however, they were full of concern at the amount of sleep I was losing, and insisted on taking turns with me during the night, which they did dutifully during the rest of the trip. To them the whole process must have appeared ludicrous in the extreme, but they treated the matter with great seriousness, and helped me considerably.


Another problem was that I could only get to my animals when the train was in a station, for their van was not connected by the corridor to the rest of the train. Here the sleeping car attendant came into his own.[450] He would warn me ten minutes before we got to a station, and tell me how long we were going to stay there. This gave me time to wend my way down the train until I reached the animal van, and when the train pulled up, to jump out and minister to their wants.

The three carriages I had to go through to reach the animal van were the third-class parts of the train, and on the wooden benches therein was a solid mass of humanity surrounded by babies, bottles of wine, mothers-in-law, goats, chickens, pigs, baskets of fruit, and other necessities of travel. When this gay, exuberant, garlic-breathing crowd learned the reason for my curious and constant peregrinations to the van at the back, they united in their efforts to help. As soon as the train stopped they would help me out on to the platform, find the nearest water-tap for me, send their children scuttling in all directions to buy me bananas or bread or whatever commodity was needed for the animals, and then, when I had finished my chores, they would hoist me lovingly on board the slowly-moving train, and make earnest inquiries as to the puma's health, or how the birds were standing up to the heat, and was it true that I had a parrot that said "Hijo de puta?" Then they would offer me sweetmeats, sandwiches, glasses of wine or pots of meat, show me their babies, their goats or chickens or pigs, sing songs for me, and generally treat me as one of the family. They were so charming and kind, so friendly, that when we eventually pulled slowly into the huge, echoing station at Buenos Aires, I was almost sorry the trip was over. The animals were piled into a lorry, my hand was wrung by a hundred people, and we roared off to take the creatures, all of whom had survived the journey remarkably well, to join the rest of the collection in the huge shed in the Museum grounds.

That evening, to my horror, I discovered that a good friend of mine was giving a cocktail party to celebrate my return to Buenos Aires. I hate cocktail parties, but could think of no way of refusing this one without causing offence. So, tired though we were, Sophie and I dolled up[451] and we went. The majority of people there had never met, and did not particularly want to, but there was sprinkling of old friends to make it worthwhile. I was standing quietly discussing things of mutual interest with a friend of mine when I was approached by a type that I detest. It is the typical Englishman that seems, like some awful weed, to flourish best in foreign climes. This particular one I had met before, and had not liked. Now he loomed over me, wearing, as if to irritate me still further, his Old School tie. He had a face empty of expression, like a badly-made death-mask, and the supercilious, drawling voice that is supposed to prove to the world that even if you have no brains you were well brought up.

"I hear," he said condescendingly, "that you've just got back from Jujuy".

"Yes," I said shortly.

"By train?" he inquired, with a faint look of distaste.

"Yes," I said.

"What sort of trip down did you have?" he asked.

"Very nice very pleasant," I said.

"I suppose there was a very ordinary crowd of chaps on the train," he said commiseratingly. I looked at him, his dough-like face, his empty eyes, and I remembered my train companions: the burly young footballers who had helped me with the night watches; the old man who had recited Martin Fierro[452] to me until, in self-defence, I had been forced to eat some garlic too, between the thirteenth and fourteenth stanzas; the dear old fat lady whom I had bumped into and who had fallen backwards into her basket of eggs, and who refused to let me pay for the damage because, as she explained, she had not laughed so much for years. I looked at this vapid representative of my kind, and I could not resist it.

"Yes," I said sorrowfully, "They were a very ordinary crowd of chaps. Do you know that only a few of them wore ties, and not one of them could speak English?"

Then I left him to get myself another drink. I felt I deserved it.


Chapter Seven VAMPIRES [381] AND WINE | The Whispering Land | THE CUSTOMS OF THE COUNTRY



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