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Chapter Five

JUJUY

The elegance of the grasses, the novelty of the parasitical plants, the beauty of the flowers, the glossy green of the foliage, but above all the general luxuriance of the vegetation, filled me with admiration.

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

Calilegua was primarily a sugar-producing estate though it also grew a certain amount of the more tropical varieties of fruit for the Buenos Aires market. It was a flat plain that lay cupped in a half-moon of mountains[273] that were covered with thick, tropical forest. It was curious how suddenly you came upon this lushness of vegetation. We left the airport and for the first hour or so drove through a desiccated landscape of semi-eroded hills, sun-baked, scrub-covered, dotted here and there with the great swollen trunks of the palo borracho trees, their bark as thickly covered with spines as a hedgehog's back, and here and there you saw one of the giant cacti rearing up, perhaps twenty feet high, decorated with strange curving branches. These again were spine-covered and unfriendly. Then we sped round a couple of corners, down a hill and into the valley of Calilegua, and the vegetation changed, so suddenly that it was almost painful to the eye. Here were the vivid greens of the tropics, so many shades and some of such viridescence[274] that they make the green of the English landscape look grey in comparison. Then, as if to assure me that I was back in the tropics, a small flock of parakeets[275] swooped across the road, wheezing and chittering. Shortly afterwards we passed a group of Indians, dressed in tattered shirts and trousers and gigantic straw hats. They were short and squat, with Mongolian features and the curious sloe-coloured[276] eyes over which there seems to be a bloom[277] like a plum that covers thought and expression. They glanced at the car incuriously as we passed. After being among Europeans so long, and in the flat scenery of the Pampa and Patagonia, the Indians, the parakeets and the vividness of the country through which we drove went to my head like wine.

Presently the driver slowed down and swung off the main road on to a rough track that was thickly lined on both sides by thick clumps of gigantic bamboos, some of the canes being as thick as a man's thigh and pale honey-coloured, tiger-striped with green. These huge canes bent gracefully over the road and intertwined their fluttering green leaves overhead so thickly that the road was gloomy, and it was like driving down the nave[278] of a cathedral. The sunlight flickered and flashed between the giant stems as we drove down the rutted track, and above the noise of the car engine I could hear the strange groans and squeaks that bamboos make when swayed by the wind. Presently we came to a villa half-hidden in a riot[279] of flowers and creepers, and here the car stopped. Joan Lett, who, with her husband Charles, had invited me to Calilegua, came out to greet me, took me inside and gave me the most welcome cup of tea. Presently, when Charles returned from his work, we sat on the balcony in the fading indigo evening night and discussed my plan of campaign.

It has always been my experience in most parts of the world, that if you go to an area which is fairly well populated you can obtain most of your common local fauna without much difficulty, for the local people keep the creatures either as pets, or rear them until they are old enough to form the basis for a meal. So your first job should be to go round every ranch and village in the vicinity and buy what you can. Then you can review your collection and try and fill in the gaps (which are generally the rare creatures) yourself. I propounded this philosophy to Charles, as the ice tinkled musically in our gin-and-tonics,[280] but to my dismay he was not inclined to agree with me. He said that he did not think the Indians in Calilegua kept anything in the livestock line, except the usual run[281] of cats, dogs and chickens. However, he promised that the next day he would get one of his more intelligent helpers to make inquiries in the village, and let me know the result. I went to bed fortified by gin but in a gloomy frame of mind, wondering if after all I had come to the wrong place. Even the faint whisper of crickets outside in the garden and the huge trembling stars that told me I was back in the tropics did little to cheer me.

The next morning, however, things looked brighter. After breakfast I was out in the garden watching a flock of gold, blue and silver butterflies feeding on the scarlet blooms of a bush when Luna arrived. I had heard him singing, in a pleasant tenor voice, as he came down the avenue of bamboo, and as he reached the gate he paused in his song, clapped his hands in the customary manner of anyone in South America when arriving at your house, opened the gate and joined me by the bush and the butterflies. He was a tiny man, about five feet in height, and as slender as a fourteen-year-old boy. He had a handsome, faintly skull-like face, with huge dark eyes, and black hair that was cropped close to his head. He held out a hand that looked as fragile as the butterflies we were surrounded by.

"Se~nor Durrell?" he inquired.

"Yes," I replied, shaking his hand gently, for fear it should break off at the wrist.

"I am Luna," he said, as if this should be sufficient explanation.

"Se~nor Lett sent you?" I asked.

"Si, si," he answered, giving me a smile of great charm and sweetness.

We both stood and watched the butterflies drifting round the red blooms, while I racked my brains for the right Spanish phrases.

"!Que lindo," said Luna, pointing at the butterflies, "que bicho mas lindo!"[282]

"Si," I said. There was another pause, and we smiled at each other amiably.

"You speak English?" I inquired hopefully.

"No, very small," said Luna, spreading his hands and smiling gently, as if deploring this terrible gap in his education.

It was obvious that his knowledge of my language was about as extensive as mine was of his. This later proved to be true. Both of us could understand a quite complicated conversation in each other's language, but both were incapable of doing more in speech than string a few ungrammatical nouns and verbs together.

"You I go Helmuth," suggested Luna suddenly, waving a delicate hand.

I agreed, wondering what a Helmuth was; it was a new word to me, and, as far as I was concerned, could have been anything from a new type of jet-engine to a particularly low night-club. However, I was willing to try anything once, especially if it turned out to be a nightclub. We walked down the musically squeaking, creaking, groaning and rustling avenue of bamboo, and then came to a large area of lawn, dotted with gigantic palm-trees, their trunks covered with parasitic plants and orchids. We walked through these towards a long, low red brick building, while the humming-birds[283] flipped and whirred around us, gleaming and changing with the delicate sheen one sees on a soap bubble. Luna led me through gauze-covered doors into a large cool dining-room, and there, sitting in solitary state at the end of a huge table, devouring breakfast, was a man of about thirty with barley-sugar coloured hair, vivid blue eyes, and a leathery, red, humorous face. He looked up as we entered and gave us a wide, impish grin.

"Helmuth," said Luna, pointing to this individual, as if he had performed a particularly difficult conjuring trick. Helmuth rose from the table and extended a large, freckled hand.

"Hello," he said, crashing my hand in his, "I'm Helmuth. Sit down and have some breakfast, eh?"

I explained that I had already had some breakfast, and so Helmuth returned to his victuals, talking to me between mouthfuls, while Luna, seated the other side of the table, drooped languidly in a chair and hummed softly to himself.

"Charles tells me you want animals, eh?" said Helmuth. "Well, we don't know much about animals here. There are animals, of course, up in the hills, but I don't know what you'll get in the villages. Not much, I should think. However, when I've finished eating we go see,eh?"

When Helmuth had assured himself, somewhat reluctantly, that there was nothing edible left on the table, he hustled Luna and myself out to his station-wagon,[284] piled us in and drove down to the village, over the dusty, rutted roads that would, at the first touch of rain, turn into glutinous mud.

The village was a fairly typical one, consisting of small shacks with walls built out of the jagged off-cuts from the saw mill, and whitewashed. Each stood in its own little patch of ground, surrounded by a bamboo fence, and these gardens were sometimes filled with a strange variety of old tins, kettles and broken barrels each brimming over with flowers. Wide ditches full of muddy water separated these "gardens" from the road, and were spanned at each front gate by a small, rickety bridge of roughly-nailed branches. It was at one of these little shanties that Helmuth stopped. He peered hopefully into the riot of pomegranate trees, covered with red flowers, that filled the tiny garden.

"Here, the other day, I think I see a parrot," he explained.

We left the station-wagon and crossed the rickety little bridge that led to the bamboo gate. Here we clapped our hands and waited patiently. Presently, from inside the little shack, erupted a brood of chocolate-coloured children, all dressed in clean but tattered clothing, who lined up like a defending army and regarded us out of black eyes, each, without exception, sucking its thumb vigorously. They were followed by their mother, a short, rather handsome Indian woman with a shy smile.

"Enter, se~nores, enter," she called, beckoning us into the garden.

We went in, and, while Luna crouched down and conducted a muttered conversation with the row of fascinated children, Helmuth, exuding good-will and personality,[285] beamed at the woman.

"This se~nor," he said, gripping my shoulder tightly, as if fearful that I might run away, "this se~nor wants bichos, live bichos, eh? Now, the other day when I passed your house, I saw that you possessed a parrot, a very common and rather ugly parrot of a kind that I have no doubt the se~nor will despise. Nevertheless, I am' bound to show it to him, worthless though it is."

The woman bristled.

"It is a beautiful parrot," she said shrilly and indignantly, "a very beautiful parrot, and one, moreover, of a kind that is extremely rare. It comes from high up in the mountains."

"Nonsense," said Helmuth firmly, "I have seen many like it in the market in Jujuy, and they were so common they were practically having to give them away. This one is undoubtedly one of those."

"The se~nor is mistaken," said the woman, "this is a most unusual bird of great beauty and tameness."

"I do not think it is beautiful," said Helmuth, and added loftily, "and as for its tameness, it is a matter of indifference to the se~nor whether it be tame or as wild as a puma."

I felt it was about time I entered the fray.

"Er Helmuth," I said tentatively.

"Yes?" he said, turning to me and regarding me with his blue eyes flashing with the light of battle.

"I don't want to interfere, but wouldn't it be a good idea if I saw the bird first, before we start bargaining? I mean, it might be something very common, or something quite rare."

"Yes," said Helmuth, struck by the novelty of this idea, "yes, let us see the bird."

He turned and glared at the woman.

"Where is this wretched bird of yours?" he inquired.


The Whispering Land

The woman pointed silently over my left shoulder, and turning round I found that the parrot had been perching among the green leaves of the pomegranate tree some three feet away, an interested spectator of our bargaining. As soon as I saw it I knew that I must have it, for it was a rarity, a red-fronted Tucuman Amazon,[286] a bird which was, to say the least of it, unusual in European collections. He was small for an Amazon parrot, and his plumage was a rich grass-green with more than a tinge of yellow in it here and there; he had bare white rings round his dark eyes, and the whole of his forehead was a rich scarlet. Where the feathering ended on each foot he appeared to be wearing orange garters. I gazed at him longingly. Then, trying to wipe the acquisitive[287] look off my face I turned to Helmuth and shrugged with elaborate unconcern, which I am sure did not deceive the parrot's owner for a moment.

"It's a rarity," I said, trying to infuse dislike and loathing for the parrot into my voice, "I must have it."

"You see?" said Helmuth, returning to the attack, "the se~nor says it is a very common bird, and he already has six of them down, in Buenos Aires."

The woman regarded us both with deep suspicion. I tried to look like a man who possessed six Tucuman Amazons, and who really did not care to acquire any more. The woman wavered, and then played her trump card.[288]

"But this one talks" she said triumphantly.

"The se~nor does not care if they talk or not," Helmuth countered quickly. We had by now all moved towards the bird, and were gathered in a circle round the branch on which it sat, while it gazed down at us expressionlessly.

"?Blanco, Blanco," cooed the woman, "como te va, Blanco?"[289]

"We will give you thirty pesos for it," said Helmuth.

"Two hundred," said the woman, "for a parrot that talks two hundred is cheap."

"Nonsense," said Helmuth, "anyway, how do we know it talks? It hasn't said anything."

"Blanco, Blanco," cooed the woman in a frenzy, "speak to Mama speak Blanco."

Blanco eyed us all in a considering way.

"Fifty pesos, and that's a lot of money for a bird that won't talk," said Helmuth.

"Madre de Dios,[290] but he talks all day," said the woman, almost in tears, "wonderful things he says he is the best parrot I have ever heard."

"Fifty pesos, take it or leave it," said Helmuth flatly.

"Blanco, Blanco, speak," wailed the woman, "say something for the se~nores please."

The parrot shuffled his green feathering with a silken sound, put his head on one side and spoke.

"Hijo de puta"[291] he said, clearly and slowly.

The woman stood as though transfixed, her mouth open, unable to believe in the perfidy of her pet. Helmuth uttered a great sigh as of someone who knows the battle is won. Slowly, and with a look of utter malignancy, he turned to the unfortunate woman.

"So!" he hissed, like the villain in a melodrama. "So! This is your idea of a talking parrot, eh?"

"But, se~nor" began the woman faintly.

"Enough!" said Helmuth, cutting her short. "We have heard enough. A stranger enters your gates, in order to help you by paying you money (which you need) for a worthless bird. And what do you do? You try and cheat him by telling him your bird talks, and thus get him to pay more."

"But it does talk" protested the woman faintly.

"Yes, but what does it say?" hissed Helmuth. He paused, drew himself up to his full height, took a deep breath and roared:

"It tells this good-natured, kindly se~nor that he is the son of a whore."

The woman looked down at the ground and twiddled her bare toes in the dust. She was beaten and she knew it.

"Now that the se~nor knows what disgusting things you have taught this bird I should not think he will want it," continued Helmuth. "I should think that now he will not even want to offer you fifty pesos for a bird that has insulted not only him, but his mother."

The woman gave me a quick glance, and returned to the contemplation of her toes. Helmuth turned to me, "We have got her," he said in a pleading tone of voice, "all you have to do is to try to look insulted."

"But I am insulted," I said, trying to look offended and suppress the desire to giggle. "Never, in fact, in a long career of being insulted, have I been so insulted."

"You're doing fine," said Helmuth, holding out both hands as if begging me to relent. "Now give in a bit."

I tried to look stern but forgiving, like one of the less humorous saints one sees in ikons.

"All right," I said reluctantly, "but only this once. Fifty, you said?"

"Yes," said Helmuth, and as I pulled out my wallet he turned again to the woman. "The se~nor, because he is the very soul of kindness, has forgiven you the insult. He will pay you the fifty pesos that you demanded, in your greed."

The woman beamed. I paid over the grubby notes, and then approached the parrot. He gazed at me musingly. I held out my finger, and he gravely climbed on to it, and then made his way up my arm to my shoulder. Here he paused, gave me a knowing look, and said quite clearly and loudly:

"?Como te va, como te va, que tal?"[292] and then giggled wickedly.

"Come on," said Helmuth, revitalised by his session of bargaining. "Let's go and see what else we can find."

We bowed to the woman, who bowed to us. Then, as we closed the bamboo gate behind us and were getting into the car, Blanco turned on my shoulder and fired his parting shot.

"Estupido" he called to his late owner, "muy estupido"[293]

"That parrot," said Helmuth, hastily starting the car, "is a devil."

I was inclined to agree with him.

Our tour of the village was not entirely unproductive. By careful questioning and cross-questioning nearly everyone we met we managed to run to earth[294] five yellow-fronted Amazon parrots, an armadillo and two grey-necked guans.[295] These latter are one of the game-birds, known locally as charatas, which is an onomatopoeic[296] name resembling their cry. They look, at first glance; rather like a slim and somewhat drab hen pheasant of some species. Their basic colouring is a curious brown (the pale colour a stale bar of chocolate goes[297]) fading to grey on the neck. But, see them in the sun and you discover that what you thought was a mat brown is really slightly iridescent with a golden sheen. Under the chin they have two drooping red wattles, and the feathers on their heads, when they get excited, stand up in a kind of crest that looks like a lengthy crew-cut. They were both young birds, having been taken from the nest when a few days old and hand-reared, so they were ridiculously tame. The Amazon parrots were also tame, but none of them had the knowingness or the vocabulary of Blanco. All they could do was to mutter "Lorito"[298] at intervals, and whistle shrilly. Nevertheless, I felt for one morning's work we were not doing too badly, and so I carried my purchases back in triumph to the house, where Joan Lett had kindly allowed me to use their empty garage as a sort of storehouse for my creatures.

As I had no cages ready for the reception of my brood, I had to let them all loose in the garage and hope for the best. To my surprise this arrangement worked very well. The parrots all found themselves convenient perches, just out of pecking range of each other, and, though it had obviously been agreed that Blanco was the boss, there was no unmannerly squabbling. The guans also found themselves perches, but these they only used to sleep on, preferring to spend their days stalking about the floor of the garage, occasionally throwing back their heads and letting forth their ear-splitting cry. The armadillo, immediately on being released, fled behind a large box, and spent all day there meditating, only tip-toeing out at night to eat his food, casting many surreptitious and fearful glances at the sleeping birds. By the following day the news had spread through the village that there had arrived a mad gringo[299] who was willing to pay good money for live animals, and the first trickle of specimens started. The first arrival was an Indian carrying, on the end of a length of string, a coral snake[300] striped in yellow, black and scarlet, like a particularly revolting Old School tie.[301] Unfortunately, in his enthusiasm, the Indian had tied the string too tightly about the reptile's neck, and so it was very dead.

I had better luck with the next offering. An Indian arrived clasping a large straw hat tenderly to his bosom. After a polite exchange of greetings I asked to see what he had so carefully secured in his hat. He held it out, beaming hopefully at me, and then looking into the depths of the hat I saw reclining at the bottom, with a dewy-eyed expression[302] on its face, the most delightful kitten. It was a baby Geoffroy's cat,[303] a small species of wild cat which is getting increasingly rare in South America. Its basic colouring was a pale fawny yellowy and it was dappled all over with neat, dark brown spots. It regarded me with large bluey-green eyes from the interior of the hat, as if pleading to be picked up. I should have known better. In my experience it is always the most innocent-looking creatures that can cause you the worst damage. However, misled by its seraphic[304] expression, I reached out my hand and tried to grasp it by the scruff of the neck. The next moment I had a bad bite through the ball of my thumb and twelve deep red grooves across the back of my hand. As I withdrew my hand, cursing, the kitten resumed its innocent pose, apparently waiting to see what other little game I had in store for it. While I sucked my hand like a half-starved vampire, I bargained with the Indian and eventually purchased my antagonist. Then I tipped it, hissing and snarling like a miniature jaguar, out of the hat and into a box full of straw. There I left it for an hour or so to settle down. I felt that its capture and subsequent transportation in a straw hat might be mainly responsible for its fear and consequent bad temper, for the creature was only about two weeks old, as far as I could judge.

When I thought it had settled down and would be willing to accept my overtures of friendship, I removed the lid of the box and peered in hopefully. I missed losing my left eye by approximately three millimetres. I wiped the blood from my cheek thoughtfully; obviously my latest specimen was not going to be easy. Wrapping my hand in a piece of sacking I placed a saucer of raw egg and minced meat in one corner of the box, and a bowl of milk in the other, and then left the kitten to its own devices.[305] The next morning neither of the offerings of food had been touched. With a premonition that this was going to hurt me more than the kitten, I filled one of my feeding-bottles with warm milk, wrapped my hand in sacking and approached the box.

Now I have had, at one time and another, a fair amount of experience in trying to get frightened, irritated or just plain stupid animals to feed from a bottle, and I thought that I knew most of the tricks. The Geoffroy's kitten proceeded to show me that, as far as it was concerned, I was a mere tyro[306] at the game. It was so lithe, quick and strong for its size that after half an hour of struggling I felt as though I had been trying to pick up a drop of quicksilver with a couple of crowbars. I was covered in milk and blood and thoroughly exhausted, whereas the kitten regarded me with blazing eyes and seemed quite ready to continue the fight for the next three days if necessary. The thing that really irritated me was that the kitten had as I knew to my cost very well-developed teeth, and there seemed no reason why it should not eat and drink of its own accord, but, in this stubborn mood, I knew that it was capable of quite literally starving itself to death. A bottle seemed the only way of getting any nourishment down it. I put it back in its box, washed my wounds, and was just applying plaster to the deeper of them when Luna arrived, singing cheerfully.

"Good morning, Gerry," he said, and then stopped short and examined my bloodstained condition. His eyes widened, for I was still bleeding profusely from a number of minor scratches.

"What's this?" he asked.

"A cat gato. "[307] I said irritably.

"Puma jaguar?" he asked hopefully.

"No," I said reluctantly, "chico gato montes."[308]

"Chico gato montes" he repeated incredulously, "do this?"

"Yes. The bloody little fool won't eat. I tried it on the bottle, but it's just like a damned tiger. What it really needs is an example" my voice died away as an idea struck me. "Come on, Luna, we'll go and see Edna."

"Why Edna?" inquired Luna breathlessly as he followed me down the road to Helmuth's flat.

"She can help," I said.

"But Gerry, Helmuth won't like it if Edna is bitten by a gato montes" Luna pointed out in Spanish.

"She won't get bitten," I explained. "I just want her to give me a kitten."

Luna gazed at me with dark, puzzled eyes, but the conundrum[309] was too much for him, and so he merely shrugged and followed me round to Helmuth's front door. I clapped my hands and went into Helmuth's and Edna's comfortable sitting-room, where Edna was ensconced over a huge pile of socks, darning placidly and listening to the gramophone.

"Hello," she said, giving us her wide, attractive smile, "the gin is over there, help yourself."

Edna had a beautiful and placid nature: nothing seemed to worry her unduly. I am sure that if you walked into her sitting room with fourteen Martians in tow[310] she would merely smile and point out the location of the gin.

"Thank you, dear," I said, "but I didn't come for gin, strange though it may sound."

"It does sound strange," agreed Edna, grinning at me mischievously. "Well, if you don't want gin, what do you want?"

"A kitten."

"A kitten?"

"Yes you know, a small cat."

"Today Gerry is loco"[311] said Luna with conviction, pouring out two liberal measures of gin and handing one to me.

"I have just bought a baby gato montes" I explained to Edna. "It's extremely wild. It won't eat by itself, and this is what it did to me when I tried to feed it on the bottle." I displayed my wounds. Edna's eyes widened.

"But how big is this animal?" she asked.

"About the size of a two-week-old domestic cat."

Edna looked stern. She folded up the sock she was darning.

"Have you put disinfectant on those cuts?" she inquired, obviously preparing herself for a medical orgy.

"Never mind the cuts I washed them But what I want from you is a kitten, an ordinary kitten. Didn't you say the other day that you were infested with kittens over here?"

"Yes," said Edna, "we have plenty of kittens."

"Good. Well, can I have one?" Edna considered.

"If I give you a kitten will you let me disinfect your cuts?" she asked cunningly. I sighed.

"All right, blackmailer," I said.

So Edna disappeared into the kitchen quarters, from whence came a lot of shrill exclamations and much giggling. Then Edna returned with a bowl of hot water and proceeded to minister unto my cuts and bites, while a procession of semi-hysterical Indian maids filed into the room, carrying in their arms groups of kittens of all shapes and colours, from ones still blind to ones that were half grown and looked almost as wild as my Geoffrey's cat. Eventually I chose a fat, placid female tabby[312] which was approximately the same size and age as my wild cat, and carried it back in triumph to the garage. Here I spent an hour constructing a rough cage, while the tabby kitten purred vigorously and rubbed itself round my legs, occasionally tripping me up. When the cage was ready I put the tabby kitten in first, and left it for an hour or so to settle down.

Most wild animals have a very strong sense of territory. In the wild state, they have their own particular bit of forest or grassland which they consider their own preserve, and will defend it against any other member of their own species (or other animals sometimes) that tries to enter it. When you put wild animals into cages the cages become, as far as they are concerned, their territory. So, if you introduce another animal into the same cage, the first inmate will in all probability defend it vigorously, and you may easily have a fight to the death on your hands. So you generally have to employ low cunning. Suppose, for example, you have a large vigorous creature who is obviously quite capable of looking after itself, and it had been in a cage for a period of a few weeks. Then you get a second animal of the same species, and you want to confine them together, for the sake of convenience. Introduce the new specimen into the old one's cage, and the old one may well kill it. So the best thing to do is to build an entirely new cage, and into this you introduce the weaker of the two animals. When it has settled down, you then put the stronger one in with it. The stronger one will, of course, still remain the dominant animal, and may even bully the weaker one, but as far as he is concerned he has been introduced into someone else's territory, and this takes the edge off his potential viciousness.[313] It's a sort of Lifemanship[314] that any collector has to practise at one time or another.

In this case I was sure that the baby Geoffroy's was quite capable of killing the domestic kitten, if I introduced the kitten to it, instead of the other way round. So, once the tabby had settled down, I seized the Geoffroy's and pushed it, snarling and raving, into the cage, and stood back to see what would happen. The tabby was delighted. It came forward to the angry Geoffroy's and started to rub itself against its neck, purring loudly. The Geoffroy's, taken aback by its greeting as I had hoped, merely spat rather rudely, and retreated into a corner. The tabby, having made the first overtures of friendship, sat down, purring loudly, and proceeded to wash itself with a self-satisfied air. I covered the front of the cage with a piece of sacking and left them to settle down, for I was sure now that the Geoffroy's would do the tabby no real harm.

That evening, when I lifted the sacking, I found them lying side by side, and the Geoffroy's, instead of spitting at me as it had done up until now, contented itself with merely lifting its lip in a warning manner. I carefully inserted a large bowl of milk into the cage, and a plate containing the finely chopped meat and raw egg, which I wanted the Geoffroy's to eat.

The Whispering Land

This was the crucial test, for I was hoping that the tabby would fall upon this delicious fare and, by example, encourage the Geoffroy's to eat. Sure enough, the tabby, purring like an ancient outboard engine,[315] flung itself at the bowl of milk, took a long drink and then settled down to the meat and egg. I had retreated to a place where I could see without being seen, and I watched the Geoffroy's carefully. To begin with it took no interest at all, lying there with half-closed eyes. But eventually the noise the tabby was making over the egg and meat it was a rather messy feeder attracted its attention. It rose cautiously and approached the plate, while I held my breath. Delicately it sniffed round the edge of the plate, while the tabby lifted a face that was dripping with raw egg and gave a mew of encouragement, slightly muffled by the portion of meat it had in its mouth. The Geoffroy's stood pondering for a moment, and then, to my delight, sank down by the plate and started to eat. In spite of the fact that it must have been extremely hungry it ate daintily, lapping a little raw egg, and then picking up a morsel of meat, which it chewed thoroughly before swallowing. I watched them until, between them, they had cleaned both plates, then I replenished them with more milk, egg and meat, and went to bed well satisfied. The next morning both plates were spotless, and the Geoffroy's and the tabby were locked in each other's arms, fast asleep, their stomachs bulging like two little hairy balloons. They did not wake up until midday, and then they both looked distinctly debauched.[316] But when they saw me approaching with the plates of food they both displayed considerable interest, and I knew that my battle with the Geoffroy's was won.


THE CUSTOMS OF THE COUNTRY | The Whispering Land | Chapter Six A CITY OF BICHOS



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