CHAPTER III. THE CRIOLLO VILLAGE.
Each house possesses its private altar, where the saints are kept. That sacred spot is veiled off when possible - if only by hanging in front of it a cow's hide - from the rest of the dwelling. It consists, according to the wealth or piety of the housewife, in expensive crosses, beads, and pictures of saints decked out with costly care; or, it may be, but one soiled lithograph surrounded by paper flowers or cheap baubles of the poorer classes; but all are alike sacred. Everything of value or beauty is collected and put as an offering to these deities - pieces of colored paper, birds' eggs, a rosy tomato or pomegranate, or any colored picture or bright tin. Descending from the ridiculous to the gruesome, I have known a mother scrape and clean the bones of her dead daughter in order that they might be given a place on the altar. Round this venerated spot the goodwife, with her palm-leaf broom, sweeps with assiduous care, and afterwards carefully dusts her crucifix and other devotional objects with her brush of ostrich feathers. Here she kneels in prayer to the different saints. God Himself is never invoked. Saint Anthony interests himself in finding her lost ring, and Saint Roque is a wonderful physician in case of sickness. If she be a maiden Saint Carmen will find her a suitable husband; if a widow, Saint John will be a husband to her; and if an orphan, the sacred heart of the Virgin of Carmen gives balsam to the forlorn one. Saint Joseph protects the artisan, and if a candle is burnt in front of Saint Ramon, he will most obligingly turn away the tempest or the lightning stroke. In all cases one candle at least must be promised these mysterious benefactors, and rash indeed would be the man or woman who failed to burn the candle; some most terrible vengeance would surely overtake him or his family.
God, as I have said, is never invoked. Perhaps He is supposed to sit in solitary grandeur while the saints administer His affairs? These latter are innumerable, and whatever may be their position in the minds of Romanists in other lands, in South America they are distinct and separate gods, and their graven image, picture or carving is worshipped as such.
When religious questions have not arisen, life in those remote villages has passed very pleasantly. The people live in great simplicity, knowing scarcely anything of the outside world and its progress.
At the Feast of St. John the women take sheep and lambs, gaily decorated with colored ribbons, to church with them. That is an act of worship, for the priest puts his hand on each lamb and blesses it. Avelorio for the dead, or a dance at a child's death, are generally the only meetings beside the church; but, as the poet says:
"'Tis known, at least it should be, that throughout
All countries of the Catholic persuasion,
Some weeks before Shrove Tuiesiday comes about,
The people take their fill of recreation,
And buy repentance ere they grow devout,
However high their rank or low their station,
With fiddlling, feasting, dancing, drinking, masking,
And other things which may be had for asking."
Carnival is a joyous time, and if for only once in the year the quiet town then resounds with mirth. Pails of water are carried up to the flat roofs of the houses, and each unwary pedestrian is in turn deluged. At other times flour is substituted, and on the last day of the feast ashes are thrown on all sides. At other seasons of the year the streets are quiet, and after the rural pursuits of the day are over, the guitar is brought out, and the evening breeze wafts waves of music to each listening ear. The guitar is in all South America what the bag-pipes are to Scotland-the national musical instrument of the people. The Criollo plays mostly plaintive, broken airs - now so low as to be almost inaudible, then high and shrill. Here and there he accompanies the music with snatches of song, telling of an exploit or describing the dark eyes of some lovely maiden. The airs strike one as being very strange, and decidedly unlike the rolling songs of British music.
In those interior towns a very quiet life may be passed, far away from the whistle of the railway engine. Everything is simplicity itself, and it might almost be said of some that time itself seems at a standstill. During the heat of the day the streets are entirely deserted; shops are closed, and all the world is asleep, for that is the siesta time. "They eat their dinners and go to sleep - and could they do better?"