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Chapter 3

III

"YES, my friends," he used to say to his guests, "what would you have?
A youth of seventeen summers, without worldly experience, and owing my
rank only to the glorious patriotism of my father, may God rest his
soul, I suffered immense humiliation, not so much from the
disobedience of That subordinate, who, alter all, was responsible for
those prisoners; but I suffered because, like the boy I was, I myself
dreaded going to the adjutant for the key. I had felt, before, his
rough and cutting tongue. Being quite a common fellow, with no merit
except his savage valour, he made me feel his contempt and dislike
from the first day I joined my battalion in garrison at the fort. It
was only a fortnight before! I would have confronted him sword in
hand, but I shrank from the mocking brutality of his sneers.

"I don't remember having been so miserable in my life before or since.
The torment of my sensibility was so great that I wished the sergeant
to fall dead at my feet, and the stupid soldiers who stared at me to
turn into corpses; and even those wretches for whom my entreaties had
procured a reprieve I wished dead also, because I could not face them
without shame. A mephitic heat like a whiff of air from hell came out
of that dark place in which they were confined. Those at the window
who heard what was going on jeered at me in very desperation; one of
these fellows, gone mad no doubt, kept on urging me volubly to order
the soldiers to fire through the window. His insane loquacity made my
heart turn faint. And my feet were like lead. There was no higher
officer to whom I could appeal. I had not even the firmness of spirit
to simply go away.

"Benumbed by my remorse, I stood with my back to the window. You must
not suppose that all this lasted a long time. How long could it have
been? A minute? If you measured by mental suffering it was like a
hundred years; a longer time than all my life has been since. No,
certainly, it was not so much as a minute. The hoarse screaming of
those miserable wretches died out in their dry throats, and then
suddenly a voice spoke, a deep voice muttering calmly. It called upon
me to turn round.

"That voice, senores, proceeded from the head of Gaspar Ruiz. Of his
body I could see nothing. Some of his fellow-captives had clambered
upon his back. He was holding them up. His eyes blinked without
looking at me. That and the moving of his lips was all he seemed able
to manage in his overloaded state. And when I turned round, this head,
that seemed more than human size resting on its chin under a multitude
of other heads, asked me whether I really desired to quench the thirst
of the captives.

"I said, 'Yes, yes!' eagerly, and came up quite close to the window. I
was like a child, and did not know what would happen. I was anxious to
be comforted in my helplessness and remorse.

"'Have you the authority, senor teniente, to release my wrists from
their bonds?' Gaspar Ruiz's head asked me.

"His features expressed no anxiety, no hope; his heavy eyelids blinked
upon his eyes that looked past me straight into the courtyard.

"As if in an ugly dream, I spoke, stammering: 'What do you mean? And
how can I reach the bonds on your wrists?'

"'I will try what I can do,' he said; and then that large staring
head moved at last, and all the wild faces piled up in that window
disappeared, tumbling down. He had shaken his load off with one
movement, so strong he was.

"And he had not only shaken it off, but he got free of the crush and
vanished from my sight. For a moment there was no one at all to be
seen at the window. He had swung about, butting and shouldering,
clearing a space for himself in the only way he could do it with his
hands tied behind his back.

"Finally, backing to the opening, he pushed out to me between the bars
his wrists, lashed with many turns of rope. His hands, very swollen,
with knotted veins, looked enormous and unwieldy. I saw his bent back.
It was very broad. His voice was like the muttering of a bull.

"Cut, senor teniente! Cut!'

"I drew my sword, my new unblunted sword that had seen no service as
yet, and severed the many turns of the hide rope. I did this without
knowing the why and the wherefore of my action, but as it were
compelled by my faith in that man. The sergeant made as if to cry out,
but astonishment deprived him of his voice, and he remained standing
with his mouth open as if overtaken by sudden imbecility.

"I sheathed my sword and faced the soldiers. An air of awestruck
expectation had replaced their usual listless apathy. I heard the
voice of Gaspar Ruiz shouting inside, but the words I could not make
out plainly. I suppose that to see him with his arms free augmented
the influence of his strength: I mean by this, the spiritual influence
that with ignorant people attaches to an exceptional degree of bodily
vigour. In fact, he was no more to be feared than before, on account
of the numbness of his arms and hands, which lasted for some time.

"The sergeant had recovered his power of speech. 'By all the saints!'
he cried, 'we shall have to get a cavalry man with a lasso to secure
him again, if he is to be led to the place of execution. Nothing less
than a good enlazador on a good horse can subdue him. Your worship was
pleased to perform a very mad thing.'

"I had nothing to say. I was surprised myself, and I felt a childish
curiosity to see what would happen. But the sergeant was thinking of
the difficulty of controlling Gaspar Ruiz when the time for making an
example would come.

"'Or perhaps,' the sergeant pursued vexedly, 'we shall be obliged to
shoot him down as he dashes out when the door is opened.' He was going
to give further vent to his anxieties as to the proper carrying out of
the sentence; but he interrupted himself with a sudden exclamation,
snatched a musket from a soldier, and stood watchful with his eyes
fixed on the window.'"

Joseph Conrad

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