A World by Itself
It happened to me to be taken in a mute electric launch among islands and waterways, fringed with purple and gold turbanned forest trees, and a whole undergrowth of striving vegetation. Here and there thickets of guavas, run wild, appeared beside the royal bamboos; and breadths of lost pasture tilted steeply from the woods to the winding waters. The islands closed behind us till all sense of direction was lost, or ushered us into miniature lakes within this lake. Once we stole up a dead-end, hung with lianas, where a little waterfall, in palest green light, babbled to itself as it dropped, slow-descending scallops of silver down an emerald rock-face. Yet the fairy islands were but tops of little hills, and the waterways valleys of land, which twenty years before had been sunk up to make a lake to feed some hydro-electric works for Rio.
At this point a blunt, wary head broke water without sound and a nightmare rat, four foot long, ran up a bank. They said he was a capybara—a worthless rodent who harboured the carapata which gives trouble to cattle. This gentleman turned out to be a cow-tick about the size of a pea, and I had met his brethren before among cattle in Asia—the very same cattle, hump and all, as grazed round the countryside here. So, what with him once again, and the Sacred Cow where one didn’t expect her, and the capybara-heads that were copied from alligator-heads, and hot spice breaths out of the woods, the day was a confusion of overlapping wonders. It ended in an Assam planter’s bungalow; minute jewelled birds flashing round the trumpet-flowers till the bats came on, and every night-blossom gave its soul to the globed stars.
There were iced, sliced mangoes for breakfast, and thereafter a joyous family of young folk played like trouts in the big bathing-pool, and scarcely troubled comment when the corpse of a vicious little snake was swept down a gutter. “All right! He’s dead,” said Fourteen in a pair of shorts, and returned to diving after plates. One comes into pleasant lives like these the world over, where young folk ride and swim by nature; and the elders talk in the deep moon-slashed verandahs. But how is one to translate this adequately? Or what follows?
There was a gathering, in a big city, of the local survivors of a South American contingent, which came over to the War. They were joyous and sincere, but each must have carried his own bitterness or nostalgia beneath all the light and laughter. “Joking apart, what life was it for them?” And the answer, with local insets and allusions, was: “It’s a good life. It is a good life. Of course we grouse at it, but on the whole it’s as good a life as you can want. There’s no need to be sick, and there’s no need for separations if the money runs to it. But it’s full of temptations, you know, whether one has money or not.” With which one must be content. Another gathering elsewhere was made up of some of the English men, women, and children at ease after the day’s work in a beautiful Club. Here one seemed to come a little closer to hints and half-confidences of life. But convention—more’s the pity—forbids cross-examining people as they pass, and asking them: “How do you truly live? What do you think about things here—business, marketing, servants, children’s ailments, education, and everything else?” So the river of faces flows placidly enough, and one can only guess at what underlies the ripples and dimples.
The Brazilian and his Possessions
The Brazilians I met were interested in and entirely abreast of outside concerns, but these did not make their vital world. Their God—they jested—was a Brazilian. He gave them all they wanted and more at a pinch. For instance, once when their coffee-crop exceeded bounds, He sent a frost at the right moment, which cut it down a quarter and comfortably steadied the markets. And the vast inland countries were full of everything that anyone wanted, all waiting to be used in due time. During the War, when they were driven in upon themselves for metals, fibres, and such, they would show a sample to an Indian and ask him: “Where does one find more of this?” Then he would lead them there. But, possessing these things, they gave one to understand, does not imply their immediate development by concessionaires. Brazil was a huge country, a half or third of which was still untapped. It would attend to itself in time. After a while, one fancied that, somewhere at the back of the scenes, there was the land-owning breed’s dislike of the mere buyer and seller of commodities, which suggested an aristocratic foundation to the national fabric.
The elaborate rituals of greeting and parting among ordinary folk pointed the same way. Life being large, and the hours easy-winged, they expatiate in ceremonial. On the other hand, widespread national courtesy is generally due to some cogent reason. I asked if that reason existed here. Oh yes. Naturally. Their people resented above all things rudeness, lack of consideration, and injury to their “face.” It annoyed them. Sometimes it made them see red. Then there would be trouble. Therefore, mutual accomodation from highest to humblest was the rule.
I had proof of this later at Carnival time, when the city of Rio went stark crazy. They dressed themselves in every sort of fancy-kit; they crowded into motors; they bought unlimited paper serpentines, which, properly thrown, unroll five fathoms at a flick; and for three days and three nights did nothing except circulate and congregate and bombard their neighbours with these papers and squirts of direful scent. (I made good practice against five angels in orange and black; a car-load of small boys not very disguised as young devils; and a lone, coroneted divinity in turquoise and silver.) The pavements were blocked with foot-folk all bearing serpentines, and wearing their fancy in clothes. City organisations and guilds assembled and poured out of their quarters, in charge of huge floats and figures, which were guarded by amateur cavalry; and companies of negro men and women fenced themselves inside a rope which all held, formed barbaric cohorts and platoons of red, green and yellow, and so advanced, shaking earth and air with the stamp and boom of immemorial tunes as they Charlestoned through the crowds. It was Africa—essential and unabated. The forty-foot floats that cruised high above the raging sea dealt raw-handedly with matters that the Press might have been too shy to discuss—such as a certain State railway, which is said to be casual in its traffic. Hence it was represented by twin locomotives butting like rams. To all appearance, the populace was utterly in charge of everything, and one bored one’s way, a yard at a time, into it, while it shouted whatever came into its well-informed head, and plastered everybodywith confetti. The serpentines hung like wreckage after flood on the branches of trees in the avenues; lay in rolls and fringes on the streets like seaweed on a beach; and were tangled and heaped over the bows of the cars till these resembled hay-carts of the operatic stage. But at no time, and in no place, was there anything approaching disorder, nor any smell of liquor. At two o’clock of the last night I saw a forty-foot avenue masked from kerb to kerb with serpentines and confetti. At five that same morning they were utterly gone—with the costumes and the revellers. There wasn’t even a headache hanging over in the clean air! Talking of this, people told me that drink was not a Brazilian failing, nor, as the state of the streets after Carnival proved, did men normally throw litter about. For one thing, they were racially neat-handed, as those are who deal in strong sunlight with wood, fibres, cane and rattan; and their fight against fever in the past had most practically taught them tidiness. Unpleasant things happen to the householder to-day if his cisterns and rubbish-heaps attract mosquitos in the city, and hard-handed Municipal chiefs see that he pays up. And that is the reason why it is so hard to find a bad smell in Rio.
Intellectually, the younger writers seem to orient themselves on France, and in the renewed discovery of, and delight in, their own land, which is moving many of them to-day, words are used with Gallic rigour and precision.
I had had the privilege of hearing an oration at their Academy in literary Portuguese, which carried the dignity, cadence and clarity of age-old culture, as the tones of a musical glass carry the twin mysteries of fire and water. Later on, I listened to a popular ditty, sung at a gathering of friends by a girl with a mandoline. (“I think it comes from the North—from the Dry Country, where they sing to their cattle at night.”) A warm rain was falling outside, heavy-scented from the gardens of Petropolis, and its half-tones exquisitely balanced the spirit of the old house, the shining ancient furniture, the priceless smooth silver, and, in some magic way, the ease and poise of the company. The girl’s pale face was thrown up by reflected light; and three or four young men behind her strummed in and out of the tune with their mandolines as required. Every soul in the company knew the burden; and its dead-simple, heart-breaking wail did not need to be translated to a stranger. It was followed by a rattling, tearing negro melody—no relation whatever to “coon-stuff”—evidently quite as well-known. (It came out of lordly, untouched Bahia, where, I fancy, the old heart of the land beats strongly). One could hear the West Coast drums thudding behind the strings, while one watched the feet tapping the floor and the faces lit by the associations of the jingling words. (Most likely their ayahs had sung it to them when they were babies.) For just those few instants one felt nearer Brazil than one had ever been before. I put this notion to a freind, and added: “But you are not an easy people to arrive at.”
“Isn’t that because you always think of us as Spanish? We are not. We are Portuguese by origin—out of a Portugal that is dead. What a Portugal it must have beenl But it has left its mark on us.”
That seems reasonable, too. The Brazilian has been established here four hundred years and more, beneath skies that play the deuce with book-bindings, watches, and road-beds. Yet his national fibre from end to end seems to have kept one character. It was laid down by a collection of as outrageous sea-thieves as ever sailed from Bristol or Plymouth in the same age. They allied themselves unhesitatingly with any strain they met inland, or, later, bought from the opposite coast. They feared nothing except their own Church, and that sparingly; and they set up stolid duplicates of the architecture of their native country in the face of the desperate forests and rivers into, and up which, they vanished. For great whiles they lived outside the minds of mankind and the knowledge of change, waging their own wars against whomsoever the Trade Winds fetched to their coasts; while Death fought all intruders impartially. Their first Emperor was convoyed to them by an obscure organisation called the British Navy, in the days when Napoleon was making too many Rings in Europe. Their last—not so many years since—went to Europe on holiday, leaving behind him a female relative with full Powers of Attorney. She, moved by noblest motives, freed at a stroke of the pen, a few hundred thousand slaves, who were in process of being freed by quota. These rebelled, and, after some discussion, Brazil parted from her Emperor with expressions of high esteem on both sides, and adopted a Democratic Constitution. Mercifully, slow and bad communications over immense distances, and a soothing climate, prevented this from doing too much harm. The antecedents of the national life had settled the Colour question, so that men could draw easily on the better and provide against the worst in the White, Red, and Black strands which knit the thread of their fate. The God of Brazil had further arranged that the Banana should take the place of the Dole, and that two garments should be ample for most men most of the year round. With the edge of all food, clothing, and housing problems thus blunted, and the size and strength of his heaven and earth enforcing on the richest inhabitant a certain simplicity of soul, Politics, in the baser sense of the word, became rather a risky, but high-class sport.
The Brazilian will tell you that his country is full of “graft”. He knows nothing of the deep-seated spiritual corruption of some sorts of “social service”. He grows—as men do when they talk to utter strangers—rather proud of his national enormities, and gives them full-dress names. That is a pity, because the Latin runs as naturally to grandiose terms as the Anglo-Saxon to those of belittlement. What an Englishman or citizen of the U.S. would call “trouble” or “fuss” is here a Revolution, and covers equally the performances of a bandit of Indian extraction who knocks about the interior stealing cattle till he is shot, or the upheaval of regiments whose officers consider that their merits have been overlooked. This is a large country, in which revolutions can revolve unhampered. The people who engineer them are professionals, accepting special risks and judged by special codes. The material damage is a fleabite compared with what follows “direct action” in other lands. The worst that arrives is theft of public funds by a known individual—followed by his flight to Europe. Such matters are uncamouflaged by talk about lofty motives, or political exigencies, because this is a direct-minded people and has heard it all before. (That, too, is why Latins so seldom appear in police courts as victims of the confidence-trick.) Moreover, larger schemes and undertakings for the development of Brazil are coming on, and with them a feeling that “graft” is getting beneath the dignity of things—and men.
The Uses of Gambling
Unless it be the French, I have never met a race quicker to see their own weaknesses or to turn them to advantage. Here is an instance: They will gamble continuously and from their youth—just like the English. But their Governments give them a straight chance, daily, at the Federal or State lotteries. Side by side with the legitimate gamble is an illegal fascinating play called “The Beasts”, in which the numbers from 0 to 90 are split into groups of four, each group being presided over by an Animal God—Lion, Cock, Dog, and so on. If the beast you have staked on controls two or more of the final figures of the State’s winning lottery number for the day, you are paid in proportion. Prices are fitted to the shallowest purse; but though, as has been said, the Banana takes the place of the Dole, it is not current coin. Therefore, to play The Beasts, a man must follow some occupation which fetches real money. Thus the system provides daily incentive towards honest toil as well as those dreams of unearned wealth which salt life. But rich and poor alike enjoy social luxuries on the most ample scale. They have just finished a triple-track racecourse in one of the suburbs of Rio, which holds all the beauty, colour, and design that can be worked into one landscape. Forested hills run down to it; fantastic mountain-tops watch it; and ocean-going liners glide along one side of it; so that wherever the eye turns there are fresh marvels. The Argentine, which thinks that it knows something about racing, is filled with envy just now; and revenges itself by whispering that Brazil hasn’t any really good horses.
The Brazilian takes his play, as he takes life, in his stride, and his quick speech and gestures do not reach back to his mind. He has studied samples of every nationality established under his skies these many, many years. He has been used to the English trader for generations, and there are many English-stock families, who long ago attached themselves to the national fortunes—bi-lingual folks with two sides to their heads, who act as unofficial interpreters and ambassadors at a financial or commercial pinch. The old experienced mercantile firms also send out the type of Englishman most likely to be acceptable. For the Brazilian has not yet reached the impersonality of ideal “business”. If he likes you as an individual, he will do more than anything for you. If he doesn’t, he will do less than nothing. If he knows little about you, but perceives that you have manner and a few trifles of that sort, he will wait and see. And he has heaps of leisure.
Nevertheless, in the course of a hundred years or so of trade, the English community seems to have picked up a reputation in Brazil for honesty and punctuality; and had Moscow permitted England to get to work after the War, business between the countries might now be more prosperous. When one comes across little scattered English communities trying to overtake the consequences of the General Strike, in the teeth of rending competition and derision, one realises how superbly engineered that strike was, and how—despite our comic Press—very far from humorous.
On these matters, as on many others, the Brazilian keeps his own counsel. The consciousness of his amazing potential wealth may have something to do with his calm; or he may merely prefer to manage his own affairs in his own way. He has relations with other Republics on the continent to think about; his most vital immigration questions to work out by trial and error; and occasional inter-State difficulties and arguments to compose. One State perhaps remembers that it pays most of the Federal taxation, and wants to know what it gets in return. A third, half the size of Germany, hints that the national future will be secured if its own transport schemes are immediately put through on an open cheque. Somewhere at the back of beyond all this, a man is spending his life and genius to make Indians make roads in rubber districts. Whereupon the big cities, who never see further than the town’s end, ask all the Newspaper Gods how this sort of thing can be expected to pay; or a new manufacturing suburb sings out that it has fallen into the hands of bloodless concessionaires, and must have all its contracts revised. If this be not enough for a morning’s work, there is the chance of the seasonal movement of staples—coffee, cocoa, or sugar—congesting a railway or two; or some port, Cape Horn way, hanging up a hundred and fifty ships at one strike whose repercussion echoes all up the Amazon.
These affairs are dealt with by deliberate, urbane men, with intimate knowledge of each other’s thoughts and ways. Their sentences are a little longer and better finished than ours, but there is nothing visionary in their ideas of the future. Railways and roads—now that cars have come, the road equally with the rail—are the country’s prime need. (“Aeroplanes, too, if possible, but, you see, our forests make landings difficult. Unlike Australia.”) Communities, of whatever stock, should not be isolated too long. They grow to forget things. Within certain limits it has been discovered which races do best on the land; but further experiments are in progress. You will find samples of every race somewhere or other. Eventually they will become Brazilians. Not by pressure or exhortation—the land is too big for that. The land itself will do it—in time.
As regards their neighbours on the South American continent? They understand their ideas and are understood by them. Misunderstandings with them in the past? A few, of course. That was the tradition of the age. Time has gone by for this sort of play now. The future belongs, indubitably, to “business”, and the Southern Continent knows that. There are many sorts of business. But all business leads to making The Brazils. All of which was more or less common form.
Then I asked of a philosopher, who was not in any administration, whether the blast of a trumpet blown, say on the Mediterranean, could reach to where we then stood. He smiled and answered that that was possible.
As the homeward steamer worked out of the Bay, the memories of the past wonderful weeks began to sort themselves. The rails, the motors, the factories, the sumptuous hotels and luxurious houses in which one had so rejoiced faded out. The faces of the deliberate and urbane administrators grew clearer; so did some hanging breadths of forest range, and a twilight canyon filled with solemn wavering fireflies. So did an immense roar of rapids heared through a choking hot night.
The coasts, up which our steamer marched, withdrew from us, till we closed in on the southern end of those blinding sand-beaches “much like linnen cloth when it is in whiting” which, the old-time pilots advised, marked “where thou mayest be bold to bear into Bahia.”
Bahia stood out sweating and effulgent in the sun blaze. She guards a good deal of the magic of The Brazils; for you must understand that from thence, all along north to Pernambuco, one strikes into the ghost-track of the crazy, ill-found, little ships that followed one another through the centuries, their crews devoured by scurvy afloat and sincere horror of devils ashore, their leaders as ignorant as they, and their saloon passengers certain Captain-adventurers to whom uncaring Portugal had granted territories huger than European kingdoms. They were narrow, violent, without scruple—some trained in the dark and bloody school of their East Indies—every one of them aware that to win anything you must stake all. They threw themselves on that coast and, despite the evil that they did, laid down nothing less than the foundations of a single-minded, single-tongued power over three and a quarter million square miles. That is the mystery of it all! The old French-Canadian Seignories, the Dutch and English North American Plantations are interesting historically, but their origins have long since been overlaid by events and men. According to precedent, this should have been the case in Brazil, too. But it is not.
Behind all the luxury, progress and development, the demands of this or that school of thought, or the clamour of new-landed aliens, one feels the certain spirit of the first Captains and Bandeiras—Rings and Armies—hid but waiting—as the live coal waits under a season’s ashes—to rekindle and dominate this most fascinating and mysterious world apart.