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A revolutionary war raises many strange characters out of the obscurity which is the common lot of humble lives in an undisturbed state of society. Certain individualities grow into fame through their vices and their virtues, or simply by their actions, which may have a temporary importance; and then they become forgotten. The names of a few leaders alone survive the end of armed strife and are further preserved in history; so that, vanishing from men's active memories, they still exist in books. The name of General Santierra attained that cold paper-and-ink immortality. He was a South American of good family, and the books published in his lifetime numbered him amongst the liberators of that continent from the oppressive rule of Spain.
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Table of Contents
AN IRONIC TALE
AN INDIGNANT TALE
A DESPERATE TALE
A MILITARY TALE
A Set of Six
First digital edition 2018 by Fabio De Angelis
The six stories in this volume are the result of some three or four years of occasional work. Thedates of their writing are far apart, their origins are various. None of them are connected directly with personal experiences. In all of them the facts are inherently true, by which I mean that they are not only possible but that they have actually happened. For instance, the last story in the volume, the one I call Pathetic, whose first title is Il Conde (misspelt by-the-by) is an almost verbatim transcript of the tale told me by a very charming old gentleman whom I met in Italy. I don’t mean to say it isonly that. Anybody can see that it is something more than a verbatim report, but where he left off and where I began must be left to the acute discrimination of the reader who may be interested in the problem. I don’t mean to say that the problem is worththe trouble. What I am certain of, however, is that it is not to be solved, for I am not at all clear about it myself by this time. All I can say is that the personality of the narrator was extremely suggestive quite apart from the story he was telling me. I heard a few years ago that he had died far away from his beloved Naples where that “abominable adventure” did really happen to him.
Thus the genealogy of Il Conde is simple. It is not the case with the other stories. Various strains contributed to their composition, and the nature of many of those I have forgotten, not having the habit of making notes either before or after the fact. I mean the fact of writing a story. What I remember best about Gaspar Ruiz is that it was written, or at any rate begun,within a month of finishing Nostromo; but apart from the locality, and that a pretty wide one (all the South American Continent), the novel and the story have nothing in common, neither mood, nor intention and, certainly, not the style. The manner for themost part is that of General Santierra, and that old warrior, I note with satisfaction, is very true to himself all through. Looking now dispassionately at the various ways in which this story could have been presented I can’t honestly think the General superfluous. It is he, an old man talking of the days of his youth, who characterizes the whole narrative and gives it an air of actuality which I doubt whether I could have achieved without his help. In the mere writing his existence of course was of no help at all, because the whole thing had to be carefully kept within the frame of his simple mind. But all this is but a laborious searching of memories. My present feeling is that the story could not have been told otherwise. The hint for Gaspar Ruiz the manI found in a book by Captain Basil Hall, R.N., who was for some time, between the years 1824 and 1828, senior officer of a small British Squadron on the West Coast of South America. His book published in the thirties obtained a certain celebrity and I suppose is to be found still in some libraries. The curious who may be mistrusting my imagination are referred to that printed document, Vol. II, I forget the page, but it is somewhere not far from the end. Another document connected with this story is a letter of a biting and ironic kind from a friend then in Burma, passing certain strictures upon “the gentleman with the gun on his back” which I do not intend to make accessible to the public. Yet the gun episode did really happen, or at least I am bound to believe it because I remember it, described in an extremely matter-of-fact tone, in some book I read in my boyhood; and I am not going to discard the beliefs of my boyhood for anybody on earth.
The Brute, which is the only sea-story in the volume, is, like Il Conde, associated with a direct narrative and based on a suggestion gathered on warm human lips. I will not disclose the real name of the criminal ship but the first I heard of her homicidal habits was from the late Captain Blake, commanding a London ship in which I served in 1884 as Second Officer. Captain Blake was, of all my commanders, the one I remember with the greatest affection. I have sketched in his personality, without however mentioning his name, in the first paper of The Mirror of the Sea. Inhis young days he had had a personal experience of the brute and it is perhaps for that reason that I have put the story into the mouth of a young man and made of it what the reader will see. The existence of the brute was a fact. The end of the brute asrelated in the story is also a fact, well-known at the time though it really happened to another ship, of great beauty of form and of blameless character, which certainly deserved a better fate. I have unscrupulously adapted it to the needs of my story thinking that I had there something in the nature of poetical justice. I hope that little villainy will not cast a shadow upon the general honesty of my proceedings as a writer of tales.
Of The Informer and An Anarchist I will say next to nothing. The pedigree of these tales is hopelessly complicated and not worth disentangling at this distance of time. I found them and here they are. The discriminating reader will guess that I have found them within my mind; but how they or their elements came in there I haveforgotten for the most part; and for the rest I really don’t see why I should give myself away more than I have done already.
It remains for me only now to mention The Duel, the longest story in the book. That story attained the dignity of publication allby itself in a small illustrated volume, under the title, “The Point of Honour.” That was many years ago. It has been since reinstated in its proper place, which is the place it occupies in this volume, in all the subsequent editions of my work. Its pedigree is extremely simple. It springs from a ten-line paragraph in a small provincial paper published in the South of France. That paragraph, occasioned by a duel with a fatal ending between two well-known Parisian personalities, referred for some reason orother to the “well-known fact” of two officers in Napoleon’s Grand Army having fought a series of duels in the midst of great wars and on some futile pretext. The pretext was never disclosed. I had therefore to invent it; and I think that, given the character of the two officers which I had to invent, too, I have made it sufficiently convincing by the mere force of its absurdity. The truth is that in my mind the story is nothing but a serious and even earnest attempt at a bit of historical fiction. I had heard in my boyhood a good deal of the great Napoleonic legend. I had a genuine feeling that I would find myself at home in it, and The Duel is the result of that feeling, or, if the reader prefers, of that presumption. Personally I have no qualms of conscience about this piece of work. The story might have been better told of course. All one’s work might have been better done; but this is the sort of reflection a worker must put aside courageously if he doesn’t mean every one of his conceptions to remain forever a private vision, an evanescent reverie. How many of those visions have I seen vanish in my time! This one, however, has remained, a testimony, if you like, to my courage or a proof of my rashness. What I care to remember best is the testimony of some French readers who volunteered the opinion that in those hundred pages or so I had managed to render “wonderfully” the spirit of the whole epoch. Exaggeration of kindness no doubt; but even so I hug it still to my breast, because in truth that is exactlywhat I was trying to capture in my small net: the Spirit of the Epoch—neverpurely militarist in the long clash of arms, youthful, almost childlike in its exaltation of sentiment—naively heroic in its faith.
1920. J. C.
A revolutionary war raises many strange characters out of theobscurity which is the common lot of humble lives in an undisturbedstate of society.
Certain individualities grow into fame through their vices andtheir virtues, or simply by their actions,which may have atemporary importance; and then they become forgotten. The names ofa few leaders alone survive the end of armed strife and are furtherpreserved in history; so that, vanishing from men’s activememories, they still exist in books.
The name of General Santierra attained that cold paper-and-inkimmortality. He was a South American of good family, and the bookspublished in his lifetime numbered him amongst the liberators ofthat continent from the oppressive rule of Spain.
That long contest,waged for independence on one side and fordominion on the other, developed in the course of years and thevicissitudes of changing fortune the fierceness and inhumanity of astruggle for life. All feelings of pity and compassion disappearedin the growthof political hatred. And, as is usual in war, the massof the people, who had the least to gain by the issue, sufferedmost in their obscure persons and their humble fortunes.
General Santierra began his service as lieutenant in the patriotarmy raised and commanded by the famous San Martin, afterwardsconqueror of Lima and liberator of Peru. A great battle had justbeen fought on the banks of the river Bio-Bio. Amongst theprisoners made upon the routed Royalist troops there was a soldiercalled Gaspar Ruiz. His powerful build and his big head renderedhim remarkable amongst his fellow-captives. The personality of theman was unmistakable. Some months before he had been missed fromthe ranks of Republican troops after one of the many skirmisheswhich preceded the great battle. And now, having been captured armsin hand amongst Royalists, he could expect no other fate but to beshot as a deserter.
Gaspar Ruiz, however, was not a deserter; his mind was hardlyactive enough to take a discriminating view of theadvantages orperils of treachery. Why should he change sides? He had really beenmade a prisoner, had suffered ill-usage and many privations.Neither side showed tenderness to its adversaries. There came a daywhen he was ordered, together with some other captured rebels, tomarch in the front rank of the Royal troops. A musket had beenthrust into his hands. He had taken it. He had marched. He did notwant to be killed with circumstances of peculiar atrocity forrefusing to march. He did not understand heroism but it was hisintention to throw his musket away at the first opportunity.Meantime he had gone on loading and firing, from fear of having hisbrains blown out at the first sign of unwillingness, by somenon-commissioned officer of the King of Spain. He tried to setforth these elementary considerations before the sergeant of theguard set over him and some twenty other such deserters, who hadbeen condemned summarily to be shot.
It was in the quadrangle of the fort at the back of thebatteries which command the roadstead of Valparaiso. The officerwho had identified him had gone on without listeningto hisprotestations. His doom was sealed; his hands were tied verytightly together behind his back; his body was sore all over fromthe many blows with sticks and butts of muskets which had hurriedhim along on the painful road from the place of his capture to thegate of the fort. This was the only kind of systematic attentionthe prisoners had received from their escort during a fourdays’ journey across a scantily watered tract of country. Atthe crossings of rare streams they were permitted to quench theirthirst by lapping hurriedly like dogs. In the evening a few scrapsof meat were thrown amongst them as they dropped down dead-beatupon the stonyground of the halting-place.
As he stood in the courtyard of the castle in the early morning,after having been driven hard all night, Gaspar Ruiz’s throatwas parched, and his tongue felt very large and dry in hismouth.
And Gaspar Ruiz, besides being very thirsty, was stirred by afeeling of sluggish anger, which he could not very well express, asthough the vigour of his spirit were by no means equal to thestrength of his body.
The other prisoners in the batch of the condemned hung theirheads, lookingobstinately on the ground. But Gaspar Ruiz kept onrepeating: “What should I desert for to the Royalists? Whyshould I desert? Tell me, Estaban!”
He addressed himself to the sergeant, who happened to belong tothe same part of the country as himself. But the sergeant, aftershrugging his meagre shoulders once, paid no further attention tothe deep murmuring voice at his back. It was indeed strange thatGaspar Ruiz should desert. His people were in too humble a stationto feel much the disadvantages of any form of government. There wasno reason why Gaspar Ruiz should wish to uphold in his own personthe rule of the King of Spain. Neither had he been anxious to exerthimself for its subversion. He had joined the side of Independencein an extremely reasonableand natural manner. A band of patriotsappeared one morning early, surrounding his father’s ranche,spearing the watch-dogs and ham-stringing a fat cow all in thetwinkling of an eye, to the cries of “Viva laLibertad!” Their officer discoursed of Libertywith enthusiasmand eloquence after a long and refreshing sleep. When they left inthe evening, taking with them some of Ruiz, the father’s,best horses to replace their own lamed animals, Gaspar Ruiz wentaway with them, having been invited pressingly todo so by theeloquent officer.
Shortly afterwards a detachment of Royalist troops coming topacify the district, burnt the ranche, carried off the remaininghorses and cattle, and having thus deprived the old people of alltheir worldly possessions, leftthem sitting under a bush in theenjoyment of the inestimable boon of life.
Gaspar Ruiz, condemned to death as a deserter, was not thinkingeither of his native place or of his parents, to whom he had been agood son on account of the mildness of his character and the greatstrength of his limbs. The practical advantage of this last wasmade still more valuable to his father by his obedient disposition.Gaspar Ruiz had an acquiescent soul.
But it was stirred now to a sort of dim revolt by his disliketodie the death of a traitor. He was not a traitor. He said againto the sergeant: “You know I did not desert, Estaban. YouknowI remained behind amongst the trees with three others to keep theenemy back while the detachment was running away!”
Lieutenant Santierra, little more than a boy at the time, andunused as yet to the sanguinary imbecilities of a state of war, hadlingered near by, as if fascinated by the sight of these men whowere to be shot presently—“for anexample”—as the Commandante had said.
The sergeant, without deigning to look at the prisoner,addressed himself to the young officer with a superior smile.
“Ten men would not have been enough to make him aprisoner, mi teniente. Moreover, the other three rejoined thedetachment after dark. Whyshould he, unwounded and the strongest ofthem all, have failed to do so?”
“My strength is as nothing against a mounted man with alasso,” Gaspar Ruiz protested, eagerly. “He dragged mebehind his horse for half a mile.”
At this excellent reason the sergeant only laughedcontemptuously. The young officer hurried away after theCommandante.
Presently the adjutant of the castle came by. He was atruculent, raw-boned man in a ragged uniform. His spluttering voiceissued out of a flat yellow face. The sergeantlearned from him thatthe condemned men would not be shot till sunset. He begged then toknow what he was to do with them meantime.
The adjutant looked savagely round the courtyard and, pointingto the door of a small dungeon-like guardroom, receiving light andair through one heavily barred window, said: “Drive thescoundrels in there.”
The sergeant, tightening his grip upon the stick he carried invirtue of his rank, executed this order with alacrity and zeal. Hehit Gaspar Ruiz, whose movements were slow, over his head andshoulders. Gaspar Ruiz stood still for a moment under the shower ofblows, biting his lip thoughtfully as if absorbed by a perplexingmental process—then followed the others without haste. Thedoor was locked, and the adjutant carried off the key.
By noon the heat of that vaulted place crammed to suffocationhad become unbearable. The prisoners crowded towards the window,begging their guards for a drop of water; but the soldiers remainedlying in indolent attitudes wherever there was alittle shade undera wall, while the sentry sat with his back against the door smokinga cigarette, and raising his eyebrows philosophically from time totime. Gaspar Ruiz had pushed his way to the window withirresistible force. His capacious chest neededmore air than theothers; his big face, resting with its chin on the ledge, pressedclose to the bars, seemed to support the other faces crowding upfor breath. From moaned entreaties they had passed to desperatecries, and the tumultuous howling of thosethirsty men obliged ayoung officer who was just then crossing the courtyard to shout inorder to make himself heard.
“Why don’t you give some water to theseprisoners?”
The sergeant, with an air of surprised innocence, excusedhimself by the remark thatall those men were condemned to die in avery few hours.
Lieutenant Santierra stamped his foot. “They are condemnedto death, not to torture,” he shouted. “Give them somewater at once.”
Impressed by this appearance of anger, the soldiers bestirredthemselves, and the sentry, snatching up his musket, stood toattention.
But when a couple of buckets were found and filled from thewell, it was discovered that they could not be passed through thebars, which were set too close. At the prospect of quenching theirthirst, the shrieks of those trampled down in the struggle to getnear the opening became very heartrending. But when the soldierswho had lifted the buckets towards the window put them to theground again helplessly, the yell of disappointment was still moreterrible.
The soldiers of the army of Independence were not equipped withcanteens. A small tin cup was found, but its approach to theopening caused such a commotion, such yells of rage and pain in thevague mass of limbs behind the straining facesat the window, thatLieutenant Santierra cried out hurriedly, “No, no—youmust open the door, sergeant.”
The sergeant, shrugging his shoulders, explained that he had noright to open the door even if he had had the key. But he had notthe key. The adjutant of the garrison kept the key. Those men weregiving much unnecessary trouble, since they had to die at sunset inany case. Why they had not been shot at once early in the morninghe could not understand.
Lieutenant Santierra kept his back studiously to the window. Itwas at his earnest solicitations that the Commandante had delayedthe execution. This favour had been granted to him in considerationof his distinguished family and of his father’s high positionamongst the chiefs of the Republican party. Lieutenant Santierrabelieved that the General commanding would visit the fort some timein the afternoon, and he ingenuously hoped that his naiveintercession would induce that severe man to pardon some, at least,of those criminals. In the revulsion of hisfeeling his interferencestood revealed now as guilty and futile meddling. It appeared tohim obvious that the general would never even consent to listen tohis petition. He could never save those men, and he had only madehimself responsible for the sufferings added to the cruelty oftheir fate.
“Then go at once and get the key from the adjutant,”said Lieutenant Santierra.
The sergeant shook his head with a sort of bashful smile, whilehis eyes glanced sideways at Gaspar Ruiz’s face, motionlessand silent, staring through the bars at the bottom of a heap ofother haggard, distorted, yelling faces.
His worship the adjutant de Plaza, the sergeant murmured, washaving his siesta; and supposing that he, the sergeant, would beallowed access to him, the only result he expected would be to havehis soul flogged out of his body for presuming to disturb hisworship’s repose. He made a deprecatory movement with hishands, and stood stock-still, looking down modestly upon his browntoes.
Lieutenant Santierra glaredwith indignation, but hesitated. Hishandsome oval face, as smooth as a girl’s, flushed with theshame of his perplexity. Its nature humiliated his spirit. Hishairless upper lip trembled; he seemed on the point of eitherbursting into a fit of rage or into tears of dismay.
Fifty years later, General Santierra, the venerable relic ofrevolutionary times, was well able to remember the feelings of theyoung lieutenant. Since he had given up riding altogether, andfound it difficult to walk beyond the limits of his garden, thegeneral’sgreatest delight was to entertain in his house theofficers of the foreign men-of-war visiting the harbour. ForEnglishmen he had a preference, as for old companions in arms.English naval men of all ranks accepted his hospitality withcuriosity, because he had known Lord Cochrane and had taken part,on board the patriot squadron commanded by that marvellous seaman,in the cutting out and blockading operations before Callao—anepisode of unalloyed glory in the wars of Independence and ofendless honour in the fighting tradition of Englishmen. He was afair linguist, this ancient survivor of the Liberating armies. Atrick of smoothing his long white beard whenever he was short of aword in French or English imparted an air of leisurely dignity tothe tone of his reminiscences.
“Yes, my friends,” he used to say to his guests,“what would you have? A youth of seventeen summers, withoutworldly experience, and owing my rank only to the gloriouspatriotism of my father, may God resthis soul. I suffered immensehumiliation, not so much from the disobedience of that subordinate,who, after all, was responsible for those prisoners; but I sufferedbecause, like the boy I was, I myself dreaded going to the adjutantfor the key. I had felt, before, his rough and cutting tongue.Being quite a common fellow, with no merit except his savagevalour, he made me feel his contempt and dislike from the first dayI joined my battalion in garrison at the fort. It was only afortnight before! I wouldhave confronted him sword in hand, but Ishrank from the mocking brutality of his sneers.
“I don’t remember having been so miserable in mylife before or since. The torment of my sensibility was so greatthat I wished the sergeant to fall dead at my feet,and the stupidsoldiers who stared at me to turn into corpses; and even thosewretches for whom my entreaties had procured a reprieve I wisheddead also, because I could not face them without shame. A mephiticheat like a whiff of air from hell came out of that dark place inwhich they were confined. Those at the window who had heard whatwas going on jeered at me in very desperation: one of thesefellows, gone mad no doubt, kept on urging me volubly to order thesoldiers to fire through the window. His insane loquacity made myheart turn faint. And my feet were like lead. There was no higherofficer to whom I could appeal. I had not even the firmness ofspirit to simply go away.
“Benumbed by my remorse, I stood with my back to thewindow. You must not suppose that all this lasted a long time. Howlong could it have been? A minute? If you measured by mentalsuffering it was like a hundred years; a longer time than all mylife has been since. No, certainly, it was not so much as a minute.The hoarse screamingof those miserable wretches died out in theirdry throats, and then suddenly a voice spoke, a deep voicemuttering calmly. It called upon me to turn round.
“That voice, senores, proceeded from the head of GasparRuiz. Of his body I could see nothing. Someof his fellow-captiveshad clambered upon his back. He was holding them up. His eyesblinked without looking at me. That and the moving of his lips wasall he seemed able to manage in his overloaded state. And when Iturned round, this head, that seemed more than human size restingon its chin under a multitude of other heads, asked me whether Ireally desired to quench the thirst of the captives.
“I said, ‘Yes, yes!’ eagerly, and came upquite close to the window. I was like a child, and did not knowwhatwould happen. I was anxious to be comforted in my helplessnessand remorse.
“‘Have you the authority, Senor teniente, to releasemy wrists from their bonds?’ Gaspar Ruiz’s head askedme.
“His features expressed no anxiety, no hope; his heavyeyelids blinked upon his eyes that looked past me straight into thecourtyard.
“As if in an ugly dream, I spoke, stammering: ‘Whatdo you mean? And how can I reach the bonds on yourwrists?’
“‘I will try what I can do,’ he said; and thenthat large staring head moved at last, and all the wild faces piledup in that window disappeared, tumbling down. He had shaken hisload off with one movement, so strong he was.
“And he had not only shaken it off, but he got free of thecrush and vanished from my sight. For a moment there was no one atall to be seen at the window. He had swung about, butting andshouldering, clearing a space for himself in the only way he coulddo it with his hands tied behind his back.
“Finally, backing to the opening, he pushed out to mebetween the bars his wrists, lashed with many turns of rope. Hishands, very swollen, with knotted veins, looked enormous andunwieldy. I saw his bent back. It was very broad. His voice waslike the muttering of a bull.
“‘Cut, Senor teniente. Cut!’
“I drew my sword, mynew unblunted sword that had seen noservice as yet, and severed the many turns of the hide rope. I didthis without knowing the why and the wherefore of my action, but asit were compelled by my faith in that man. The sergeant made as ifto cry out, butastonishment deprived him of his voice, and heremained standing with his mouth open as if overtaken by suddenimbecility.
“I sheathed my sword and faced the soldiers. An air ofawestruck expectation had replaced their usual listless apathy. Iheard the voice of Gaspar Ruiz shouting inside, but the words Icould not make out plainly. I suppose that to see him with his armsfree augmented the influence of his strength: I mean by this, thespiritual influence that with ignorant people attaches to anexceptional degree of bodily vigour. In fact, he was no more to befeared than before, on account of the numbness of his arms andhands, which lasted for some time.
“The sergeant had recovered his power of speech. ‘Byall the saints!’ he cried, ‘we shall have to get acavalry man with a lasso to secure him again, if he is to be led tothe place of execution. Nothing less than a good enlazador on agood horse can subdue him. Your worship was pleased to perform avery mad thing.’
“I had nothing to say. I was surprisedmyself, and I felt achildish curiosity to see what would happen next. But the sergeantwas thinking of the difficulty of controlling Gaspar Ruiz when thetime for making an example would come.
“‘Or perhaps,’ the sergeant pursued, vexedly,‘we shall be obliged to shoot him down as he dashes out whenthe door is opened.’ He was going to give further vent to hisanxieties as to the proper carrying out of the sentence; but heinterrupted himself with a suddenexclamation, snatched a musketfrom a soldier, andstood watchful with his eyes fixed on thewindow.”
“Gaspar Ruiz had clambered up on the sill, and sat downthere with his feet against the thickness of the wall and his kneesslightly bent. The window was not quite broad enough for the lengthof his legs. It appeared to my crestfallen perception that he meantto keep the window all to himself. He seemed to be taking up acomfortable position. Nobody inside dared to approach him now hecould strike with his hands.
“‘Por Dios!’ I heard the sergeant muttering atmy elbow, ‘I shall shoot him through the head now, and getrid of that trouble. He is a condemned man.’
“At that I looked at him angrily. ‘The general hasnot confirmed the sentence,’ I said—though I knew wellin my heart that these were but vain words. The sentence requiredno confirmation. ‘You have no right to shoot him unless hetries to escape,’ I added, firmly.
“‘But sangre de Dios!’ the sergeant yelledout, bringing his musket up to the shoulder, ‘he is escapingnow. Look!’
“But I, as if thatGaspar Ruiz had cast a spell upon me,struck the musket upward, and the bullet flew over the roofssomewhere. The sergeant dashed his arm to the ground and stared. Hemight have commanded the soldiers to fire, but he did not. And ifhe had he would not have been obeyed, I think, just then.
“With his feet against the thickness of the wall and hishairy hands grasping the iron bar, Gaspar sat still. It was anattitude. Nothing happened for a time. And suddenly it dawned uponus that he was straightening his bowed back and contracting hisarms. His lips were twisted into a snarl. Next thing we perceivedwas that the bar of forged iron was being bent slowly by themightiness of his pull. The sun was beating full upon his cramped,unquivering figure. A shower ofsweat-drops burst out of hisforehead. Watching the bar grow crooked, I saw a little blood oozefrom under his finger-nails. Then he let go. For a moment heremained all huddled up, with a hanging head, looking drowsily intothe upturned palms of his mighty hands. Indeed he seemed to havedozed off. Suddenly he flung himself backwards on the sill, andsetting the soles of his bare feet against the other middle bar, hebent that one, too, but in the opposite direction from thefirst.
“Such was his strength,which in this case relieved mypainful feelings. And the man seemed to have done nothing. Exceptfor the change of position in order to use his feet, which made usall start by its swiftness, my recollection is that of immobility.But he had bent the barswide apart. And now he could get out if heliked; but he dropped his legs inwards, and looking over hisshoulder beckoned to the soldiers. ‘Hand up the water,’he said. ‘I will give them all a drink.’
“He was obeyed. For a moment I expected man and buckettodisappear, overwhelmed by the rush of eagerness; I thought theywould pull him down with their teeth. There was a rush, but holdingthe bucket on his lap he repulsed the assault of those wretches bythe mere swinging of his feet. They flew backwards atevery kick,yelling with pain; and the soldiers laughed, gazing at thewindow.
“They all laughed, holding their sides, except thesergeant, who was gloomy and morose. He was afraid the prisonerswould rise and break out—which would have been a badexample.But there was no fear of that, and I stood myself beforethe window with my drawn sword. When sufficiently tamed by thestrength of Gaspar Ruiz they came up one by one, stretching theirnecks and presenting their lips to the edge of the bucket which thestrong man tilted towards them from his knees with an extraordinaryair of charity, gentleness, and compassion. That benevolentappearance was of course the effect of his care in not spilling thewater and of his attitude as he sat on the sill; for, if a manlingered with his lips glued to the rim of the bucket after GasparRuiz had said ‘You have had enough,’ there would be notenderness or mercy in the shove of the foot which would send himgroaning and doubled up far into the interior of the prison,wherehe would knock down two or three others before he fellhimself. They came up to him again and again; it looked as if theymeant to drink the well dry before going to their death; but thesoldiers were so amused by Gaspar Ruiz’s systematicproceedings thatthey carried the water up to the windowcheerfully.
“When the adjutant came out after his siesta there wassome trouble over this affair, I can assure you. And the worst ofit was that the general whom we expected never came to the castlethat day.”
The guests of General Santierra unanimously expressed theirregret that the man of such strength and patience had not beensaved.
“He was not saved by my interference,” said theGeneral. “The prisoners were led to execution half an hourbefore sunset. Gaspar Ruiz, contrary to the sergeant’sapprehensions, gave no trouble. There was no necessity to get acavalry man with a lasso in order to subdue him, as if he were awild bull of the campo. I believe he marched out with his arms freeamongst the others who werebound. I did not see. I was not there. Ihad been put under arrest for interfering with the prisoner’sguard. About dusk, sitting dismally in my quarters, I heard threevolleys fired, and thought that I should never hear of Gaspar Ruizagain. He fell withthe others. But we were to hear of himnevertheless, though the sergeant boasted that as he lay on hisface expiring or dead in the heap of the slain, he had slashed hisneck with a sword. He had done this, he said, to make sure ofridding the world of a dangerous traitor.
“I confess to you, senores, that I thought of that strongman with a sort of gratitude, and with some admiration. He had usedhis strength honourably. There dwelt, then, in his soul nofierceness corresponding to the vigour of his body.”
Gaspar Ruiz, who could with ease bend apart the heavy iron barsof the prison, was led out with others to summary execution.“Every bullet has its billet,” runs the proverb. Allthe merit of proverbs consists in the concise and picturesqueexpression. Inthe surprise of our minds is found theirpersuasiveness. In other words, we are struck and convinced by theshock.
What surprises us is the form, not the substance. Proverbs areart—cheap art. As a general rule they are not true; unlessindeed they happento be mere platitudes, as for instance theproverb, “Half a loaf is better than no bread,” or“A miss is as good as a mile.”Some proverbs are simplyimbecile, others are immoral. That one evolved out of the naiveheart of the great Russian people, “Man discharges the piece,but God carries the bullet,” is piously atrocious, and atbitter variance with the accepted conception of a compassionateGod. It would indeed be an inconsistent occupation for the Guardianof the poor, the innocent, and the helpless,to carry the bullet,for instance, into the heart of a father.
Gaspar Ruiz was childless, he had no wife, he had never been inlove. He had hardly ever spoken to a woman, beyond his mother andthe ancient negress of the household, whose wrinkled skin was thecolour of cinders, and whose lean body was bent double from age. Ifsome bullets from those muskets fired off at fifteen paces werespecifically destined for the heart of Gaspar Ruiz, they all missedtheir billet. One, however, carried away a small piece of his ear,and another a fragment of flesh from his shoulder.
A red and unclouded sun setting into a purple ocean looked witha fiery stare upon the enormous wall of the Cordilleras, worthywitnesses of his glorious extinction. But it is inconceivable thatit should have seen the ant-like men busy with their absurd andinsignificant trials of killing and dying for reasons that, apartfrom being generally childish, were also imperfectly understood. Itdid light up, however, the backs of the firing party and the facesof the condemned men. Some of them had fallen on their knees,others remained standing, a few averted their heads from thelevelled barrels of muskets. Gaspar Ruiz, upright, the burliest ofthem all, hung his big shock head. The low sun dazzled him alittle, and he counted himself a dead man already.
He fell at the first discharge. He fell because he thought hewas a dead man. He struck the ground heavily. The jar of the fallsurprised him. “I am not dead apparently,” he thoughtto himself, when he heard the execution platoon reloading its armsat the word of command. It was then that the hope of escape dawnedupon him for the first time. He remained lying stretched out withrigid limbs under the weight of two bodies collapsed crosswise uponhisback.
By the time the soldiers had fired a third volley into theslightly stirring heaps of the slain, the sun had gone out ofsight, and almost immediately with the darkening of the ocean duskfell upon the coasts of the young Republic. Above the gloom of thelowlands the snowy peaks of the Cordilleras remained luminous andcrimson for a long time. The soldiers before marching back to thefort sat down to smoke.
The sergeant with a naked sword in his hand strolled away byhimself along the heap of the dead. He was a humane man, andwatched for any stir or twitch of limb in the merciful idea ofplunging the point of his blade into any body giving the slightestsign of life. But none of the bodies afforded him an opportunityfor the display of this charitable intention. Not a muscle twitchedamongst them, not even the powerful muscles of Gaspar Ruiz, who,deluged with the blood of his neighbours and shamming death, stroveto appear more lifeless than the others.
He was lying face down. The sergeant recognizedhim by hisstature, and being himself a very small man, looked with envy andcontempt at the prostration of so much strength. He had alwaysdisliked that particular soldier. Moved by an obscure animosity, heinflicted a long gash across the neck of GasparRuiz, with somevague notion of making sure of that strong man’s death, as ifa powerful physique were more able to resist the bullets. Forthesergeant had no doubt that Gaspar Ruiz had been shot through inmany places. Then he passed on, and shortly afterwards marched offwith his men, leaving the bodies to the care of crows andvultures.
Gaspar Ruiz had restrained a cry, though it had seemed to himthat his head was cut off at a blow; and when darkness came,shaking off the dead, whose weight hadoppressed him, he crawledaway over the plain on his hands and knees. After drinking deeply,like a wounded beast, at a shallow stream, he assumed an uprightposture, and staggered on light-headed and aimless, as if lostamongst the stars of the clear night. A small house seemed to riseout of the ground before him. He stumbled into the porch and struckat the door with his fist. There was not a gleam of light. GasparRuiz might have thought that the inhabitants had fled from it, asfrom many others in theneighbourhood, had it not been for theshouts of abuse that answered his thumping. In his feverish andenfeebled state the angry screaming seemed to him part of ahallucination belonging to the weird, dreamlike feeling of hisunexpected condemnation to death, of the thirst suffered, of thevolleys fired at him within fifteen paces, of his head being cutoff at a blow. “Open the door!” he cried. “Openin the name of God!”
An infuriated voice from within jeered at him: “Come in,come in. This house belongs toyou. All this land belongs to you.Come and take it.”
“For the love of God,” Gaspar Ruiz murmured.
“Does not all the land belong to you patriots?” thevoice on the other side of the door screamed on. “Are you nota patriot?”
Gaspar Ruiz did not know. “I am a wounded man,” hesaid, apathetically.
All became still inside. Gaspar Ruiz lost the hope of beingadmitted, and lay down under the porch just outside the door. Hewas utterly careless of what was going to happen to him. All hisconsciousness seemed tobe concentrated in his neck, where he felt asevere pain. His indifference as to his fate was genuine. The daywas breaking when he awoke from a feverish doze; the door at whichhe had knocked in the dark stood wide open now, and a girl,steadying herselfwith her outspread arms, leaned over thethreshold. Lying on his back, he stared up at her. Her face waspale and her eyes were very dark; her hair hung down black as ebonyagainst her white cheeks; her lips were full and red. Beyond her hesaw another head with long grey hair, and a thin old face with apair of anxiously clasped hands under the chin.
“I knew those people by sight,” General Santierrawould tell his guests at the dining-table. “I mean the peoplewith whom Gaspar Ruiz found shelter. The father was an oldSpaniard, a man of property ruined by the revolution. His estates,his house in town, his money, everything he had in the world hadbeen confiscated by proclamation, for he was a bitter foe of ourindependence. From a position of great dignity and influence on theViceroy’s Council he became of less importance than his ownnegro slaves made free by our glorious revolution. He had not eventhe means to flee the country, as other Spaniards had managed todo. It may be that, wandering ruined and houseless, and burdenedwith nothing but his life, which was left to him by the clemency ofthe Provisional Government, he had simply walked under that brokenroof of old tiles. It was a lonely spot. There did not seem tobeeven a dog belonging to the place. But though the roof had holes,as if a cannon-ball or two had dropped through it, the woodenshutters were thick and tight-closed all the time.
“My way took me frequently along the path in front of thatmiserable rancho. I rode from the fort to the town almost everyevening, to sigh at the window of a lady I was in love with, then.When one is young, you understand. . . . She was a good patriot,you may believe. Caballeros, credit me or not, political feelingran so high in those days that I do not believe I could have beenfascinated by the charms of a woman of Royalist opinions. . ..”
Murmurs of amused incredulity all round the table interruptedthe General; and while they lasted he stroked his white beardgravely.
“Senores,” he protested, “a Royalist was amonster to our overwrought feelings. I am telling you this in ordernot to be suspected of the slightest tenderness towards that oldRoyalist’s daughter. Moreover, as you know, my affectionswere engaged elsewhere. But I could not help noticing her on rareoccasions when with the front door open she stood in the porch.
“You must know that this old Royalist was as crazy as aman can be. His political misfortunes, his total downfall and ruin,had disordered his mind. To show his contempt for what wepatriotscould do, he affected to laugh at his imprisonment, at theconfiscation of his lands, the burning of his houses, and at themisery to which he and his womenfolk were reduced. This habit oflaughing had grown upon him, so that he would begin to laugh andshout directly he caught sight of any stranger. That was the formof his madness.
“I, of course, disregarded the noise of that madman withthat feeling of superiority the success of our cause inspired in usAmericans. I suppose I really despised himbecause he was an oldCastilian, a Spaniard born, and a Royalist. Those were certainly noreasons to scorn a man; but for centuries Spaniards born had showntheir contempt of us Americans, men as well descended asthemselves, simply because we were what they called colonists. Wehad been kept in abasement and made to feel our inferiority insocial intercourse. And now it was our turn. It was safe for uspatriots to display the same sentiments; and I being a youngpatriot, son of a patriot, despised that old Spaniard, anddespising him I naturally disregarded his abuse, though it wasannoying to my feelings. Others perhaps would not have been soforbearing.
“He would begin with a great yell—‘I see apatriot. Another of them!’ long before I came abreast ofthehouse. The tone of his senseless revilings, mingled with bursts oflaughter, was sometimes piercingly shrill and sometimes grave. Itwas all very mad; but I felt it incumbent upon my dignity to checkmy horse to a walk without even glancing towards thehouse, as ifthat man’s abusive clamour in the porch were less than thebarking of a cur. Always I rode by preserving an expression ofhaughty indifference on my face.
“It was no doubt very dignified; but I should have donebetter if I had kept my eyes open. A military man in war timeshould never consider himself off duty; and especially so if thewar is a revolutionary war, when the enemy is not at the door, butwithin your very house. At such times the heat of passionateconvictions passing into hatred,removes the restraints of honourand humanity from many men and of delicacy and fear from somewomen. These last, when once they throw off the timidity andreserve of their sex, become by the vivacityof their intelligenceand the violence of their merciless resentment more dangerous thanso many armed giants.”
The General’s voice rose, but his big hand stroked hiswhite beard twice with an effect of venerable calmness. “Si,Senores! Women are ready to rise to the heights of devotionunattainable by us men, or to sink into the depths of abasementwhich amazes our masculine prejudices. I am speaking now ofexceptional women, you understand. . . .”
Here one of the guests observed that he had never met a womanyet who was not capable of turning out quite exceptional undercircumstances that would engage her feelings strongly. “Thatsort of superiority in recklessness they have over us,” heconcluded, “makes of them the more interesting half ofmankind.”
The General, who bore the interruption with gravity, noddedcourteous assent. “Si. Si. Under circumstances. . . .Precisely. They can do an infinite deal of mischief sometimes inquite unexpected ways. For who could have imagined that a younggirl, daughter of a ruined Royalist whose life was held only by thecontempt of his enemies, would have had the power to bring deathand devastation upon two flourishing provinces and cause seriousanxiety to the leaders of the revolution in the very hour of itssuccess!” He paused to let the wonder of it penetrate ourminds.
“Death and devastation,” somebody murmured insurprise: “how shocking!”
The old General gave a glance in the direction of the murmur andwent on. “Yes. That is, war—calamity. But the means bywhich she obtained the power to work this havoc on oursouthernfrontier seem to me, who have seen her and spoken to her,still more shocking. That particular thing left on my mind adreadful amazement which the further experience of life, of morethan fifty years, has done nothing to diminish.” He lookedround as ifto make sure of our attention, and, in a changed voice:“I am, as you know, a republican, son of a Liberator,”he declared. “My incomparable mother, God rest her soul, wasa Frenchwoman, the daughter of an ardent republican. As a boy Ifought for liberty;I’ve always believed in the equality ofmen; and as to their brotherhood, that, to my mind, is even morecertain. Look at the fierce animosity they display in theirdifferences. And what in the world do you know that is morebitterly fierce than brothers’quarrels?”
All absence of cynicism checked an inclination to smile at thisview of human brotherhood. On the contrary, there was in the tonethe melancholy natural to a man profoundly humane at heart who fromduty, from conviction, and from necessity, hadplayed his part inscenes of ruthless violence.
The General had seen much of fratricidal strife.“Certainly. There is no doubt of their brotherhood,” heinsisted. “All men are brothers, and as such know almost toomuch of each other. But”—and here in the oldpatriarchal head, white as silver, the black eyes humorouslytwinkled—“if we are all brothers, all the women are notour sisters.”
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