CHAPTER I. BUENOS AYRES IN 1889.
In the year 1889, after five weeks of ocean tossing, the steamer on which I was a passenger anchored in the River Plate, off Buenos Ayres. Nothing but water and sky was to be seen, for the coast was yet twenty miles away, but the river was too shallow for the steamer to get nearer. Large tugboats came out to us, and passengers and baggage were transhipped into them, and we steamed ten miles nearer the still invisible city. There smaller tugs awaited us and we were again transhipped. Sailing once more toward the land, we soon caught sight of the Argentine capital, but before we could sail nearer the tugs grounded. There we were crowded into flat-bottomed, lug-sailed boats for a third stage of our landward journey. These boats conveyed us to within a mile of the city, when carts, drawn by five horses, met us in the surf and drew us on to the wet, shingly beach. There about twenty men stood, ready to carry the females on their backs on to the dry, sandy shore, where was the customs house. The population of the city we then entered was about six hundred thousand souls.
After changing the little gold I carried for the greasy paper currency of the country, I started out in search of something to eat. Eventually I found myself before a substantial meal. At a table in front of me sat a Scotsman from the same vessel. He had arrived before me (Scotsmen say they are always before the Englishmen) and was devouring part of a leg of mutton. This, he told me, he had procured, to the great amusement of Boniface, by going down on all fours and baa-ing like the sheep of his native hills. Had he waited until I arrived he might have feasted on lamb, for my voice was not so gruff as his. He had unconsciously asked for an old sheep. I think the Highlander in that instance regretted that he had preceded the Englishman.
How shall I describe the metropolis of the Argentine, with its one-storied, flat-roofed houses, each with grated windows and centre patio? Some of the poorer inhabitants raise fowls on the roof, which gives the house a barnyard appearance, while the iron-barred windows below strongly suggest a prison. Strange yet attractive dwellings they are, lime-washed in various colors, the favorite shades seeming to be pink and bottle green. Fires are not used except for cooking purposes, and the little smoke they give out is quickly dispersed by the breezes from the sixty-mile-wide river on which the city stands.
The Buenos Ayres of 1889 was a strange place, with its long, narrow streets, its peculiar stores and many-tongued inhabitants. There is the dark-skinned policeman at the corner of each block sitting silently on his horse, or galloping down the cobbled street at the sound of some revolver, which generally tells of a life gone out. Arriving on the scene he often finds the culprit flown. If he succeeds in riding him down (an action he scruples not to do), he, with great show, and at the sword's point, conducts him to the nearest police station. Unfortunately he often chooses the quiet side streets, where his prisoner may have a chance to buy his freedom. If he pays a few dollars, the poor vigilante is perfectly willing to lose him, after making sometimes the pretence of a struggle to blind the lookers-on, if there be any curious enough to interest themselves. This man in khaki is often "the terror of the innocent, the laughing-stock of the guilty." The poor man or the foreign sailor, if he stagger ever so little, is sure to be "run in." The Argentine law-keeper (?) is provided with both sword and revolver, but receives small remuneration, and as his salary is often tardily paid him, he augments it in this way when he cannot see a good opportunity of turning burglar or something worse on his own account. When he is low in funds he will accost the stranger, begging a
cigarette, or inviting himself at your expense to the nearest cafe, as "the day is so unusually hot." After all, we must not blame him too much - his superiors are far from guiltless, and he knows it. When Minister Toso took charge of the Provincial portfolio of Finance, he exclaimed, "C-o! Todos van robando menos yo!" ("Everybody is robbing here except I.") It is public news that President Celman carried away to his private residence in the country a most beautiful and expensive bronze fountain presented by the inhabitants of the city to adorn the principal plaza. [Footnote: Public square.] The president is elected by the people for a term of three years, and invariably retires a rich man, however poor he may have been when entering on his office. The laws of the country may be described as model and Christian, but the carrying out of them is a very different matter.
Some of the laws are excellent and worthy of our imitation, such as, for example, the one which decrees that bachelors shall be taxed. Civil elections are held on Sundays, the voting places being Roman Catholic churches.
Both postmen and telegraph boys deliver on horseback, but such is the lax custom that everything will do to-morrow. That fatal word is the first the stranger learns - manana.