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Chapter 12

XII

"BUT Gaspar Ruiz breathed yet. I had him carried in his poncho under
the shelter of some bushes on the very ridge from which he had been
gazing so fixedly at the fort while unseen death was hovering already
over his head.

"Our troops had bivouacked round the fort. Towards daybreak I was not
surprised to hear that I was designated to command the escort of a
prisoner who was to be sent down at once to Santiago. Of course the
prisoner was Gaspar Ruiz' wife.

"'I have named you out of regard for your feelings,' General Robles
remarked. 'Though the woman really ought to be shot for all the harm
she has done to the Republic.'

"And as I made a movement of shocked protest, he continued:

"'Now he is as well as dead, she is of no importance. Nobody will
know what to do with her. However, the Government wants her.' He
shrugged his shoulders. 'I suppose he must have buried large
quantities of his loot in places that she alone knows of.'

"At dawn I saw her coming up the ridge, guarded by two soldiers, and
carrying her child on her arm.

"I walked to meet her.

"'Is he living yet?' she asked, confronting me with that white,
impassive face he used to look at in an adoring way.

"I bent my head, and led her round a clump of bushes without a word.
His eyes were open. He breathed with difficulty, and uttered her name
with a great effort.

"'Erminia!'

"She knelt at his head. The little girl, unconscious of him, and with
her big eyes, looking about, began to chatter suddenly, in a joyous,
thin voice. She pointed a tiny finger at the rosy glow of sunrise
behind the black shapes of the peaks. And while that child-talk,
incomprehensible and sweet to the ear, lasted, those two, the dying
man and the kneeling woman, remained silent, looking into each other's
eyes, listening to the frail sound. Then the prattle stopped. The
child laid its head against its mother's breast and was still.

"'It was for you,' he began. 'Forgive.' His voice failed him.
Presently I heard a mutter, and caught the pitiful words: 'Not strong
enough.'

"She looked at him with an extraordinary intensity. He tried to smile,
and in a humble tone, 'Forgive me,' he repeated. 'Leaving you. . .'

"She bent down, dry-eyed, and in a steady voice: 'On all the earth I
have loved nothing but you, Gaspar,' she said.

"His head made a movement. His eyes revived. 'At last! 'he sighed out.
Then, anxiously, 'But is this true . . . is this true?'

"'As true as that there is no mercy and justice in this world,' she
answered him passionately. She stooped over his face. He tried to
raise his head, but it fell back, and when she kissed his lips he was
already dead. His glazed eyes stared at the sky, on which pink clouds
floated very high. But I noticed the eyelids of the child, pressed to
its mother's breast, droop and close slowly. She had gone to sleep.

"The widow of Gaspar Ruiz, the strong man, allowed me to lead her away
without shedding a tear.

"For travelling we had arranged for her a side-saddle very much like a
chair, with a board swung beneath to rest her feet on. And the first
day she rode without uttering a word, and hardly for one moment
turning her eyes away from the little girl, whom she held on her
knees. At our first camp I saw her during the night walking about,
rocking the child in her arms and gazing down at it by the light of
the moon. After we had started on our second day's march she asked me
how soon we should come to the first village of the inhabited country.

"I said we should be there about noon.

"'And will there be women there?' she inquired.

"I told her that it was a large village. 'There will be men and women
there, senora,' I said, 'whose hearts shall be made glad by the news
that all the unrest and war is over now.'

"'Yes, it is all over now,' she repeated. Then, after a time: 'senor
officer, what will your Government do with me?'

"'I do not know, senora,' I said. 'They will treat you well, no
doubt. We republicans are not savages, and take no vengeance on
women.'

"She gave me a look at the word 'republicans' which I imagined full of
undying hate. But an hour or so afterwards, as we drew up to let the
baggage mules go first along a narrow path skirting a precipice, she
looked at me with such a white, troubled face that I felt a great pity
for her.

"'Senor officer,' she said, 'I am weak, I tremble. It is an
insensate fear.' And indeed her lips did tremble, while she tried to
smile glancing at the beginning of the narrow path which was not so
dangerous after all. 'I am afraid I shall drop the child. Gaspar saved
your life, you remember. . . . Take her from me.'

"I took the child out of her extended arms. 'Shut your eyes, senora,
and trust to your mule,' I recommended.

"She did so, and with her pallor and her wasted thin face she looked
deathlike. At a turn of the path, where a great crag of purple
porphyry closes the view of the lowlands, I saw her open her eyes. I
rode just behind her holding the little girl with my right arm. 'The
child is all right,' I cried encouragingly.

"'Yes,' she answered faintly; and then, to my intense terror, I saw
her stand up on the footrest, staring horribly, and throw herself
forward into the chasm on our right.

"I cannot describe to you the sudden and abject fear that came over me
at that dreadful sight. It was a dread of the abyss, the dread of the
crags which seemed to nod upon me. My head swam. I pressed the child
to my side and sat my horse as still as a statue. I was speechless and
cold all over. Her mule staggered, sidling close to the rock, and then
went on. My horse only pricked up his ears with a slight snort. My
heart stood still, and from the depths of the precipice the stones
rattling in the bed of the furious stream made me almost insane with
their sound.

"Next moment we were round the turn and on a broad and grassy slope.
And then I yelled. My men came running back to me in great alarm. It
seems that at first I did nothing but shout, 'She has given the child
into my hands! She has given the child into my hands!' The escort
thought I had gone mad."

General Santierra ceased and got up from the table. "And that is all,
senores," he concluded, with a courteous glance at his rising guests.

"But what became of the child, General?" we asked.

"Ah, the child, the child."

He walked to one of the windows opening on his beautiful garden, the
refuge of his old days. Its fame was great in the land. Keeping us
back with a raised arm, he called out, "Erminia, Erminia!" and waited.
Then his cautioning arm dropped, and we crowded to the windows.

From a clump of trees a woman had come upon the broad walk bordered
with flowers. We could hear the rustle of her starched petticoats and
observed the ample spread of her old-fashioned black silk skirt. She
looked up, and seeing all these eyes staring at her, stopped, frowned,
smiled, shook her finger at the General, who was laughing
boisterously, and drawing the black lace on her head so as to partly
conceal her haughty profile, passed out of our sight, walking with
stiff dignity.

"You have beheld the guardian angel of the old man--and her to whom
you owe all that is seemly and comfortable in my hospitality. Somehow,
senores, though the flame of love has been kindled early in my breast,
I have never married. And because of that perhaps the sparks of the
sacred fire are not yet extinct here." He struck his broad chest.
"Still alive, still alive," he said, with serio-comic emphasis. "But I
shall not marry now. She is General Santierra's adopted daughter and
heiress."

One of our fellow-guests, a young naval officer, described her
afterwards as a "short, stout, old girl of forty or thereabouts." We
had all noticed that her hair was turning grey, and that she had very
fine black eyes.

"And", General Santierra continued, "neither would she ever hear of
marrying any one. A real calamity! Good, patient, devoted to the old
man. A simple soul. But I would not advise any of you to ask for her
hand, for if she took yours into hers it would be only to crush your
bones. Ah! she does not jest on that subject. And she is the own
daughter of her father, the strong man who perished through his own
strength: the strength of his body, of his simplicity--of his love!"


Joseph Conrad

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