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Chapter 5

V

GASPAR RUIZ, who could with ease bend apart the heavy iron bars of the
prison, was led out with others to summary execution. "Every bullet
has its billet," runs the proverb. All the merit of proverbs consists
in the concise and picturesque expression. In the surprise of our
minds is found their persuasiveness. In other words, we are struck and
convinced by the shock.

What surprises us is the form, not the substance. Proverbs are art--
cheap art. As a general rule they are not true; unless indeed they
happen to be mere platitudes, as for instance the proverb, "Half a
loaf is better than no bread," or "A miss is as good as a mile." Some
proverbs are simply imbecile, others are immoral. That one evolved out
of the naive heart of the great Russian people, "Man discharges the
piece, but God carries the bullet," is piously atrocious, and at
bitter variance with the accepted conception of a compassionate God.
It would indeed be an inconsistent occupation for the Guardian of 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 in love.
He had hardly ever spoken to a woman, beyond his mother and the
ancient negress of the household, whose wrinkled skin was the colour
of cinders, and whose lean body was bent double from age. If some
bullets from those muskets fired off at fifteen paces were
specifically destined for the heart of Gaspar Ruiz, they all missed
their 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 with a
fiery stare upon the enormous wall of the Cordilleras, worthy
witnesses of his glorious extinction. But it is inconceivable that it
should have seen the ant-like men busy with their absurd and
insignificant trials of killing and dying for reasons that, apart from
being generally childish, were also imperfectly understood. It did
light up, however, the backs of the firing party and the faces of the
condemned men. Some of them had fallen on their knees, others remained
standing, a few averted their heads from the levelled barrels of
muskets. Gaspar Ruiz, upright, the burliest of them all, hung his big
shock head. The low sun dazzled him a little, and he counted himself a
dead man already.

He fell at the first discharge. He fell because he thought he was a
dead man. He struck the ground heavily. The jar of the fall surprised
him. "I am not dead apparently," he thought to himself, when he heard
the execution platoon reloading its arms at the word of command. It
was then that the hope of escape dawned upon him for the first time.
He remained lying stretched out with rigid limbs under the weight of
two bodies collapsed crosswise upon his back.

By the time the soldiers had fired a third volley into the slightly
stirring heaps of the slain, the sun had gone out of sight, and almost
immediately with the darkening of the ocean dusk fell upon the coasts
of the young Republic. Above the gloom of the lowlands the snowy peaks
of the Cordillera remained luminous and crimson for a long time. The
soldiers before marching back to the fort sat down to smoke.

The sergeant with a naked sword in his hand strolled away by himself
along the heap of the dead. He was a humane man, and watched for any
stir or twitch of limb in the merciful idea of plunging the point of
his blade into any body giving the slightest sign of life. But none of
the bodies afforded him an opportunity for the display of this
charitable intention. Not a muscle twitched amongst them, not even the
powerful muscles of Gaspar Ruiz, who, deluged with the blood of his
neighbours and shamming death, strove to appear more lifeless than the
others.

He was lying face down. The sergeant recognised him by his stature,
and being himself a very small man, looked with envy and contempt at
the prostration of so much strength. He had always disliked that
particular soldier. Moved by an obscure animosity, he inflicted a long
gash across the neck of Gaspar Ruiz, with some vague notion of making
sure of that strong man's death, as if a powerful physique were more
able to resist the bullets. For the sergeant had no doubt that Gaspar
Ruiz had been shot through in many places. Then he passed on, and
shortly afterwards marched off with, his men, leaving the bodies to
the care of crows and vultures.

Gaspar Ruiz had restrained a cry, though it had seemed to him that his
head was cut off at a blow; and when darkness came, shaking off the
dead, whose weight had oppressed him, he crawled away over the plain
on his hands and knees. After drinking deeply, like a wounded beast,
at a shallow stream, he assumed an upright posture, and staggered on
light-headed and aimless, as if lost amongst the stars of the clear
night. A small house seemed to rise out of the ground before him. He
stumbled into the porch and struck at the door with his fist. There
was not a gleam of light. Gaspar Ruiz might have thought that the
inhabitants had fled from it, as from many others in the
neighbourhood, had it not been for the shouts of abuse that answered
his thumping. In his feverish and enfeebled state the angry screaming
seemed to him part of a hallucination belonging to the weird dreamlike
feeling of his unexpected condemnation to death, of the thirst
suffered, of the volleys fired at him within fifteen paces, of his
head being cut off at a blow. "Open the door!" he cried. "Open in the
name of God!"

An infuriated voice from within jeered at him: "Come in, come in. This
house belongs to you. 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?" the voice on the other
side of the door screamed on. "Are you not a patriot?"

Gaspar Ruiz did not know. "I am a wounded man," he said apathetically.

All became still inside. Gaspar Ruiz lost the hope of being admitted,
and lay down under the porch just outside the door. He was utterly
careless of what was going to happen to him. All his consciousness
seemed to be concentrated in his neck, where he felt a severe pain.
His indifference as to his fate was genuine.

The day was breaking when he awoke from a feverish doze; the door at
which he had knocked in the dark stood wide open now, and a girl,
steadying herself with her outspread arms, leaned over the threshold.
Lying on his back, he stared up at her. Her face was pale and her eyes
were very dark; her hair hung down black as ebony against her white
cheeks; her lips were full and red. Beyond her he saw another head
with long grey hair, and a thin old face with a pair of anxiously
clasped hands under the chin.

Joseph Conrad

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