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Chapter 6

VI

"I KNEW those people by sight," General Santierra would tell his
guests at the dining-table. "I mean the people with whom Gaspar Ruiz
found shelter. The father was an old Spaniard, a man of property,
ruined by the revolution. His estates, his house in town, his money,
everything he had in the world had been confiscated by proclamation,
for he was a bitter foe of our independence. From a position of great
dignity and influence on the Viceroy's Council he became of less
importance than his own negro slaves made free by our glorious
revolution. He had not even the means to flee the country, as other
Spaniards had managed to do. It may be that, wandering ruined and
houseless, and burdened with nothing but his life, which was left to
him by the clemency of the Provisional Government, he had simply
walked under that broken roof of old tiles. It was a lonely spot.
There did not seem to be even a dog belonging to the place. But though
the roof had holes, as if a cannonball or two had dropped through it,
the wooden shutters were thick and tight-closed all the time.

"My way took me frequently along the path in front of that miserable
rancho. I rode from the fort to the town almost every evening, 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 be sure.
Caballeros, credit me or not, political feeling ran so high in those
days that I do not believe I could have been fascinated by the charms
of a woman of Royalist opinions. . . ."

Murmurs of amused incredulity all round the table interrupted the
General; and while they lasted he stroked his white beard gravely.

"Senores," he protested, "a Royalist was a monster to our overwrought
feelings. I am telling you this in order not to be suspected of the
slightest tenderness towards that old Royalist's daughter. Moreover,
as you know, my affections were engaged elsewhere. But I could not
help noticing her on rare occasions when with the front door open she
stood in the porch.

"You must know that this old Royalist was as crazy as a man can be.
His political misfortunes, his total downfall and ruin, had disordered
his mind. To show his contempt for what we patriots could do, he
affected to laugh at his imprisonment, at the confiscation of his
lands, the burning of his houses, and the misery to which he and his
womenfolk were reduced. This habit of laughing had grown upon him, so
that he would begin to laugh and shout directly he caught sight of any
stranger. That was the form of his madness.

"I, of course, disregarded the noise of that madman with that feeling
of superiority the success of our cause inspired in us Americans. I
suppose I really despised him because he was an old Castilian, a
Spaniard born, and a Royalist. Those were certainly no reasons to
scorn a man; but for centuries Spaniards born had shown their contempt
of us Americans, men as well descended as themselves, simply because
we were what they called colonists. We had been kept in abasement and
made to feel our inferiority in social intercourse. And now it was our
turn. It was sale for us patriots to display the same sentiments; and
I being a young patriot, son of a patriot, despised that old Spaniard,
and despising him I naturally disregarded his abuse, though it was
annoying to my feelings. Others perhaps would not have been so
forbearing.

"He would begin with a great yell--'I see a patriot. Another of
them!' long before I came abreast of the house. The tone of his
senseless revilings, mingled with bursts of laughter, was sometimes
piercingly shrill and sometimes grave. It was all very mad; but I felt
it incumbent upon my dignity to check my horse to a walk without even
glancing towards the house, as if that man's abusive clamour in the
porch were less than the barking of a cur. I rode by, preserving an
expression of haughty indifference on my face.

"It was no doubt very dignified; but I should have done better if I
had kept my eyes open. A military man in war time should never
consider himself off duty; and especially so if the war is a
revolutionary war, when the enemy is not at the door, but within your
very house. At such times the heat of passionate convictions, passing
into hatred, removes the restraints of honour and humanity from many
men and of delicacy and fear from some women. These last, when once
they throw off the timidity and reserve of their sex, become by the
vivacity of their intelligence and the violence of their merciless
resentment more dangerous than so many armed giants."

The General's voice rose, but his big hand stroked his white beard
twice with an effect of venerable calmness. "Si, senores! Women are
ready to rise to the heights of devotion unattainable by us men, or to
sink into the depths of abasement which amazes our masculine
prejudices. I am speaking now of exceptional women, you understand. . ."

Here one of the guests observed that he had never met a woman yet who
was not capable of turning out quite exceptional under circumstances
that would engage her feelings strongly. "That sort of superiority in
recklessness they have over us," he concluded, "makes of them the more
interesting half of mankind."

The General, who bore the interruption with gravity, nodded courteous
assent. "Si. Si. Under circumstances. . . . Precisely. They can do an
infinite deal of mischief sometimes in quite unexpected ways. For who
could have imagined that a young girl, daughter of a ruined Royalist
whose life itself was held only by the contempt of his enemies, would
have had the power to bring death and devastation upon two flourishing
provinces and cause serious anxiety to the leaders of the revolution
in the very hour of its success!" He paused to let the wonder of it
penetrate our minds.

"Death and devastation," somebody murmured in surprise: "how
shocking!"

The old General gave a glance in the direction of the murmur and went
on. "Yes. That is, war--calamity. But the means by which she obtained
the power to work this havoc on our southern frontier seem to me, who
have seen her and spoken to her, still more shocking. That particular
thing left on my mind a dreadful amazement which the further
experience of life, of more than fifty years, has done nothing to
diminish." He looked round as if to 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,
was a Frenchwoman, the daughter of an ardent republican. As a boy I
fought for liberty; I've always believed in the equality of men; and
as to their brotherhood, that, to my mind, is even more certain. Look
at the fierce animosity they display in their differences. And what in
the world do you know that is more bitterly fierce than brothers'
quarrels?"

All absence of cynicism checked an inclination to smile at this view
of human brotherhood. On the contrary, there was in the tone the
melancholy natural to a man profoundly humane at heart who from duty,
from conviction and from necessity, had played his part in scenes of
ruthless violence.

The General had seen much of fratricidal strife. "Certainly. There is
no doubt of their brotherhood," he insisted. "All men are brothers,
and as such know almost too much of each other. But "--and here in
the old patriarchal head, white as silver, the black eyes humorously
twinkled--"if we are all brothers, all the women are not our
sisters."

One of the younger guests was heard murmuring his satisfaction at the
fact. But the General continued, with deliberate earnestness: "They
are so different! The tale of a king who took a beggar-maid for a
partner of his throne may be pretty enough as we men look upon
ourselves and upon love. But that a young girl, famous for her haughty
beauty and, only a short time before, the admired of all at the balls
in the Viceroy's palace, should take by the hand a guasso, a common
peasant, is intolerable to our sentiment of women and their love. It
is madness. Nevertheless it happened. But it must be said that in her
case it was the madness of hate--not of love."

After presenting this excuse in a spirit of chivalrous justice, the
General remained silent for a time. "I rode past the house every day
almost," he began again, "and this was what was going on within. But
how it was going on no mind of man can conceive. Her desperation must
have been extreme, and Gaspar Ruiz was a docile fellow. He had been an
obedient soldier. His strength was like an enormous stone lying on the
ground, ready to be hurled this way that by the hand that picks it up.

"It is clear that he would tell his story to the people who gave him
the shelter he needed. And he needed assistance badly. His wound was
not dangerous, but his life was forfeited. The old Royalist being
wrapped up in his laughing madness, the two women arranged a hiding-
place for the wounded man in one of the huts amongst the fruit trees
at the back of the house. That hovel, an abundance of clear water
while the fever was on him, and some words of pity were all they could
give. I suppose he had a share of what food there was. And it would be
but little; a handful of roasted corn, perhaps a dish of beans, or a
piece of bread with a few figs. To such misery were those proud and
once wealthy people reduced."

Joseph Conrad

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