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Chapter 10

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"AFTER this--as he called it--act of justice, Ruiz crossed the Rio
Blanco, followed by the greater part of his band, and entrenched
himself upon a hill A company of regular troops sent out foolishly
against him was surrounded, and destroyed almost to a man. Other
expeditions, though better organised, were equally unsuccessful.

"It was during these sanguinary skirmishes that his wife first began
to appear on horseback at his right hand. Rendered proud and self-
confident by his successes, Ruiz no longer charged at the head of his
partida, but presumptuously, like a general directing the movements of
an army, he remained in the rear, well mounted and motionless on an
eminence, sending out his orders. She was seen repeatedly at his side,
and for a long time was mistaken for a man. There was much talk then
of a mysterious white-faced chief, to whom the defeats of our troops
were ascribed. She rode like an Indian woman, astride, wearing a
broad-rimmed man's hat and a dark poncho. Afterwards, in the day of
their greatest prosperity, this poncho was embroidered in gold, and
she wore then, also, the sword of poor Don Antonio de Leyva. This
veteran Chilean officer, having the misfortune to be surrounded with
his small force, and running short of ammunition, found his death at
the hands of the Arauco Indians, the allies and auxiliaries of Gaspar
Ruiz. This was the fatal affair long remembered afterwards as the
'Massacre of the Island.' The sword of the unhappy officer was
presented to her by Peneleo, the Araucanian chief; for these Indians,
struck by her aspect, the deathly pallor of her face, which no
exposure to the weather seemed to affect, and her calm indifference
under fire, looked upon her as a supernatural being, or at least as a
witch. By this superstition the prestige and authority of Gaspar Ruiz
amongst these ignorant people were greatly augmented. She must have
savoured her vengeance to the full on that day when she buckled on the
sword of Don Antonio de Leyva. It never left her side, unless she put
on her woman's clothes--not that she would or could ever use it, but
she loved to feel it beating upon her thigh as a perpetual reminder
and symbol of the dishonour to the arms of the Republic. She was
insatiable. Moreover, on the path she had led Gaspar Ruiz upon, there
is no stopping. Escaped prisoners--and they were not many--used to
relate how with a few whispered words she could change the expression
of his face and revive his flagging animosity. They told how after
every skirmish, after every raid, after every successful action, he
would ride up to her and look into her face. Its haughty-calm was
never relaxed. Her embrace, senores, must have been as cold as the
embrace of a statue. He tried to melt her icy heart in a stream of
warm blood. Some English naval officers who visited him at that time
noticed the strange character of his infatuation."

At the movement of surprise and curiosity in his audience General
Santierra paused for a moment.

"Yes--English naval officers," he repeated. "Ruiz had consented to
receive them to arrange for the liberation of some prisoners of your
nationality. In the territory upon which he ranged, from sea coast to
the Cordillera, there was a bay where the ships of that time, after
rounding Gape Horn, used to resort for wood and water. There, decoying
the crew on shore, he captured first the whaling brig Hersalia, and
afterwards made himself master by surprise of two more ships, one
English and one American.

"It was rumoured at the time that he dreamed of setting up a navy of
his own. But that, of course, was impossible. Still, manning the brig
with part of her own crew, and putting an officer and a good many men
of his own on board, he sent her off to the Spanish Governor of the
island of Chiloe with a report of his exploits, and a demand for
assistance in the war against the rebels. The Governor could not do
much for him; but he sent in return two light field-pieces, a letter
of compliments, with a colonel's commission in the royal forces, and a
great Spanish flag. This standard with much ceremony was hoisted over
his house in the heart of the Arauco country. Surely on that day she
may have smiled on her guasso husband with a less haughty reserve.

"The senior officer of the English squadron on our coast made
representations to our Government as to these captures. But Gaspar
Ruiz refused to treat with us. Then an English frigate proceeded to
the bay, and her captain, doctor, and two lieutenants travelled inland
under a safe conduct. They were well received, and spent three days
as guests of the partisan chief. A sort of military, barbaric state
was kept up at the residence. It was furnished with the loot of
frontier towns. When first admitted to the principal sala, they saw
his wife lying down (she was not in good health then), with Gaspar
Ruiz sitting at the foot of the couch. His-hat was lying on the floor,
and his hands reposed on the hilt of his sword.

"During that first conversation he never removed his big hands from
the sword-hilt, except once, to arrange the coverings about her, with
gentle, careful touches. They noticed that when ever she spoke he
would fix his eyes upon her in a kind of expectant, breathless
attention, and seemingly forget the existence of the world and his own
existence too. In the course of the farewell banquet, at which she was
present reclining on her couch, he burst forth into complaints of the
treatment he had received. After General San Martin's departure he had
been beset by spies, slandered by civil officials, his services
ignored, his liberty and even his life threatened by the Chilian
Government. He got up from the table, thundered execrations pacing the
room wildly, then sat down on the couch at his wife's feet, his breast
heaving, his eyes fixed on the floor. She reclined on her back, her
head on the cushions, her eyes nearly closed.

"'And now I am an honoured Spanish officer,' he added in a calm
voice.

"The captain of the English frigate then took the opportunity to
inform him gently that Lima had fallen, and that by the terms of a
convention the Spaniards were withdrawing from the whole continent.

"Gaspar Ruiz raised his head, and without hesitation, speaking with
suppressed vehemence, declared, that if not a single Spanish soldier
were left in the whole of South America he would persist in carrying
on the contest against Chile to the last drop of blood. When he
finished that mad tirade his wife's long white hand was raised, and
she just caressed his knee with the tips of her fingers for a fraction
of a second.

"For the rest of the officers' stay, which did not extend for more
than half an hour after the banquet, that ferocious chieftain of a
desperate partida overflowed with amiability and kindness. He had been
hospitable before, but now it seemed as though he could not do enough
for the comfort and safety of his visitors' journey back to their
ship.

"Nothing, I have been told, could have presented a greater contrast to
his late violence or the habitual taciturn reserve of his manner. Like
a man elated beyond measure by an unexpected happiness, he overflowed
with good-will, amiability, and attentions. He embraced the officers
like brothers, almost with tears in his eyes. The released prisoners
were presented each with a piece of gold. At the last moment,
suddenly, he declared he could do no less than restore to the masters
of the merchant vessels all their private property. This unexpected
generosity caused some delay in the departure of the party, and their
first march was very short.

"Late in the evening Gaspar Ruiz rode up with an escort, to their camp
fires, bringing along with him a mule loaded with cases of wine. He
had come, he said, to drink a stirrup cup with his English friends,
whom he would never see again. He was mellow and joyous in his temper.
He told stories of his own exploits, laughed like a boy, borrowed a
guitar from the Englishmen's chief muleteer, and sitting cross-legged
on his superfine poncho spread before the glow of the embers, sang a
guasso love-song in a tender voice. Then his head dropped on his
breast, his hands fell to the ground; the guitar rolled off his knees
--and a great hush fell over the camp after the love-song of the
implacable partisan who had made so many of our people weep for
destroyed homes and for loves cut short.

"Before anybody could make a sound he sprang up from the ground and
called for his horse. 'Adios, my friends!' he cried, 'Go with God.
I love you. And tell them well in Santiago that between Gaspar Ruiz,
colonel of the King of Spain, and the republican carrion-crows of
Chile there is war to the last breath--war! war! war!'

"With a great yell of 'War! war! war!' which his escort took up, they
rode away, and the sound of hoofs and of voices died out in the
distance between the slopes of the hills.

"The two young English officers were convinced that Ruiz was mad. How
do you say that ?--tile loose--eh? But the doctor, an observant
Scotsman with much shrewdness and philosophy in his character, told me
that it was a very curious case of possession. I met him many years
afterwards, but he remembered the experience very well. He told me too
that in his opinion that woman did not lead Gaspar Ruiz into the
practice of sanguinary treachery by direct persuasion, but by the
subtle way of awakening and keeping alive in his simple mind a burning
sense of an irreparable wrong. Maybe, maybe. But I would say that she
poured half of her vengeful soul into the strong clay of that man, as
you may pour intoxication, madness, poison into an empty cup.

"If he wanted war he got it in earnest when our victorious army began
to return from Peru. Systematic operations were planned against this
blot on the honour and prosperity of our hardly-won independence.
General Robles commanded, with his well-known ruthless severity.
Savage reprisals were exercised on both sides, and no quarter was
given in the field. Having won my promotion in the Peru campaign, I
was a captain on the staff.

"Gaspar Ruiz found himself hard pressed; at the same time we heard by
means of a fugitive priest who had been carried off from his village
presbytery, and galloped eighty miles into the hills to perform the
christening ceremony, that a daughter was born to them. To celebrate
the event, I suppose, Ruiz executed one or two brilliant forays clear
away at the rear of our forces, and defeated the detachments sent out
to cut off his retreat. General Robles nearly had a stroke of apoplexy
from rage. He found another cause of insomnia than the bites of
mosquitoes; but against this one, senores, tumblers of raw brandy had
no more effect than so much water. He took to railing and storming at
me about my strong man. And from our impatience to end this inglorious
campaign, I am afraid that we young officers became reckless and apt
to take undue risks on service.

"Nevertheless, slowly, inch by inch as it were, our columns were
closing upon Gaspar Ruiz, though he had managed to raise all the
Araucanian nation of wild Indians against us. Then a year or more
later our Government became aware through its agents and spies that he
had actually entered into alliance with Carreras, the so-called
dictator of the so-called republic of Mendoza, on the other side of
the mountains. Whether Gaspar Ruiz had a deep political intention, or
whether he wished only to secure a safe retreat for his wife and child
while he pursued remorselessly against us his war of surprises and
massacres, I cannot tell. The alliance, however, was a fact. Defeated
in his attempt to check our advance from the sea, he retreated with
his usual swiftness, and preparing for another hard and hazardous
tussle began by sending his wife with the little girl across the
Pequena range of mountains, on the frontier of Mendoza."

Joseph Conrad

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