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Chapter 8

VIII

"SENORES," related the General to his guests, "though my thoughts were
of love then, and therefore enchanting, the sight of that house always
affected me disagreeably, especially in the moonlight, when its close
shutters and its air of lonely neglect appeared sinister. Still I went
on using the bridle-path by the ravine, because it was a short cut.
The mad Royalist howled and laughed at me every evening to his
complete satisfaction; but after a time, as if wearied with my
indifference, he ceased to appear in the porch. How they persuaded him
to leave off I do not know. However, with Gaspar Ruiz in the house
there would have been no difficulty in restraining him by force. It
was part of their policy in there to avoid anything which could
provoke me. At least, so I suppose.

"Notwithstanding my infatuation with the brightest pair of eyes in
Chile, I noticed the absence of the old man after a week or so. A few
more days passed. I began to think that perhaps these Royalists had
gone away somewhere else. But one evening, as I was hastening towards
the city, I saw again somebody in the porch. It was not the madman; it
was the girl. She stood holding on to one of the wooden columns, tall
and white-faced, her big eyes sunk deep with privation and sorrow. I
looked hard at her, and she met my stare with a strange, inquisitive
look. Then, as I turned my head after riding past, she seemed to
gather courage for the act, and absolutely beckoned me back.

"I obeyed, senores, almost without thinking, so great was my
astonishment. It was greater still when I heard what she had to say.
She began by thanking me for my forbearance of her father's infirmity,
so that I felt ashamed of myself. I had meant to show disdain, not
forbearance! Every word must have burnt her lips, but she never
departed from a gentle and melancholy dignity which filled me with
respect against my will. Senores, we are no match for women. But I
could hardly believe my ears when she began her tale. Providence, she
concluded, seemed to have preserved the life of that wronged soldier,
who now trusted to my honour as a caballero and to my compassion for
his sufferings.

"'Wronged man,' I observed coldly. 'Well, I think so too: and you
have been harbouring an enemy of your cause.'

"'He was a poor Christian crying for help at our door in the name of
God, senor,' she answered simply.

"I began to admire her. 'Where is he now?' I asked stiffly.

"But she would not answer that question. With extreme cunning, and an
almost fiendish delicacy, she managed to remind me of my failure in
saving the lives of the prisoners in the guard-room, without wounding
my pride. She knew, of course, the whole story. Gaspar Ruiz, she said,
entreated me to procure for him a safe-conduce from General San Martin
himself. He had an important communication to make to the Commander-
in-Chief.

"Por Dios, senores, she made me swallow all that, pretending to be
only the mouthpiece of that poor man. Overcome by injustice, he
expected to find, she said, as much generosity in me as had been shown
to him by the Royalist family which had given him a refuge.

"Hal It was well and nobly said to a youngster like me. I thought her
great. Alas! she was only implacable.

"In the end I rode away very enthusiastic about the business, without
demanding even to see Gaspar Ruiz, who I was confident was in the
house.

"But on calm reflection I began to see some difficulties which I had
not confidence enough in myself to encounter. It was not easy to
approach a commander-in-chief with such a story. I feared failure. At
last I thought it better to lay the matter before my general-of-
division, Robles, a friend of my family, who had appointed me his
aide-de-camp lately.

"He took it out of my hands at once without any ceremony.

"'In the house! of course he is in the house,' he said
contemptuously. 'You ought to have gone sword in hand inside and
demanded his surrender, instead of chatting with a Royalist girl in
the porch. Those people should have been hunted out of that long ago.
Who knows how many spies they have harboured right in the very midst
of our camps? A safe-conduct from the Commander-in-Chief! The audacity
of the fellow! Ha! ha! Now we shall catch him to-night, and then we
shall find out, without any safe-conduct, what he has got to say, that
is so very important. Ha! ha! ha!'

"General Robles, peace to his soul, was a short, thick man, with
round, staring eyes, fierce and jovial. Seeing my distress he added:

"'Come, come, chico. I promise you his life if he does not resist.
And that is not likely. We are not going to break up a good soldier if
it can be helped. I tell you what! I am curious to see your strong
man. Nothing but a general will do for the picaro--well, he shall
have a general to talk to. Ha! ha! I shall go myself to the catching,
and you are coming with me, of course.'

"And it was done that same night. Early in the evening the house and
the orchard were surrounded quietly. Later on the general and I left a
ball we were attending in town and rode out at an easy gallop. At some
little distance from the house we pulled up. A mounted orderly held
our horses. A low whistle warned the men watching all along the
ravine, and we walked up to the porch softly. The barricaded house in
the moonlight seemed empty.

"The general knocked at the door. After a time a woman's voice within
asked who was there. My chief nudged me hard. I gasped.

"' It is I, Lieutenant Santierra,' I stammered out, as if choked.
'Open the door.'

"It came open slowly. The girl, holding a thin taper in her hand,
seeing another man with me, began to back away before us slowly,
shading the light with her hand. Her impassive white face looked
ghostly. I followed behind General Robles. Her eyes were fixed on
mine. I made a gesture of helplessness behind my chief's back, trying
at the same time to give a reassuring expression to my face. Neither
of us three uttered a sound.

"We found ourselves in a room with bare floor and walls. There was a
rough table and a couple of stools in it, nothing else whatever. An
old woman with her grey hair hanging loose wrung her hands when we
appeared. A peal of loud laughter resounded through the empty house,
very amazing and weird. At this the old woman tried to get past us.

"'Nobody to leave the room,' said General Robles to me.

"I swung the door to, heard the latch click, and the laughter became
faint in our ears.

"Before another word could be spoken in that room I was amazed by
hearing the sound of distant thunder.

"I had carried in with me into the house a vivid impression of a
beautiful, clear, moonlight night, without a speck of cloud in the
sky. I could not believe my ears. Sent early abroad for my education,
I was not familiar with the most dreaded natural phenomenon of my
native land. I saw, with inexpressible astonishment, a look of terror
in my chief's eyes. Suddenly I felt giddy! The general staggered
against me heavily; the girl seemed to reel in the middle of the room,
the taper fell out of her hand and the light went out; a shrill cry of
Misericordia! from the old woman pierced my ears. In the pitchy
darkness I heard the plaster off the walls falling on The floor. It is
a mercy there was no ceiling. Holding on to the latch of the door, I
heard the grinding of the roof-tiles cease above my head. The shock
was over.

"'Out of the house! The door! Fly, Santierra, fly!' howled the
general. You know, senores, in our country the bravest are not ashamed
of the fear an earthquake strikes into all the senses of man. One
never gets used to it.

"Repeated experience only augments the mastery of that nameless terror.

"It was my first earthquake, and I was the calmest of them all. I
understood that the crash outside was caused by the porch, with its
wooden pillars and tiled roof projection, falling down. The next shock
would destroy the house, maybe. That rumble as of thunder was
approaching again. The general was rushing round the room, to find the
door, perhaps. He made a noise as though he were trying to climb the
walls, and I heard him distinctly invoke the names of several saints.
'Out, out, Santierra!' he yelled.

"The girl's voice was the only one I did not hear.

"'General,' I cried, 'I cannot move the door. We must be locked in.'

"I did not recognise his voice in the shout of malediction and despair
he let out. Senores I know many men in my country, especially in the
provinces most subject to earthquakes, who will neither eat, sleep,
pray, nor even sit down to cards with closed doors. The danger is not
in the loss of time, but in this--that the movement of the walls may
prevent a door being opened at all. This was what had happened to us.
We were trapped, and we had no help to expect from anybody. There is
no man in my country who will go into a house when the earth trembles.
There never was--except one: Gaspar Ruiz.

"He had come out of whatever hole he had been hiding in outside, and
had clambered over the timbers of the destroyed porch. Above the awful
subterranean groan of coming destruction I heard a mighty voice
shouting the word 'Erminia!' with the lungs of a giant. An earthquake
is a great leveller of distinctions. I collected all my resolution
against the terror of the scene. 'She is here,' I shouted back. A roar
as of a furious wild beast answered me--while my head swam, my heart
sank, and the sweat of anguish streamed like rain off my brow.

"He had the strength to pick up one of the heavy posts of the porch.
Holding it under his armpit like a lance, but with both hands, he
charged madly the rocking house with the force of a battering-ram,
bursting open the door and rushing in, headlong, over our prostrate
bodies. I and the general, picking ourselves up, bolted out together,
without looking round once till we got across the road. Then, clinging
to each other, we beheld the house change suddenly into a heap of
formless rubbish behind the back of a man, who staggered towards us
bearing the form of a woman clasped in his arms. Her long black hair
hung nearly to his feet. He laid her down reverently on the heaving
earth, and the moonlight shone on her closed eyes.

"senores, we mounted with difficulty. Our horses, getting up, plunged
madly, held by the soldiers who had come running from all sides.
Nobody thought of catching Gaspar Ruiz then. The eyes of men and
animals shone with wild fear. My general approached Gaspar Ruiz, who
stood motionless as a statue above the girl. He let himself be shaken
by the shoulder without detaching his eyes from her face.

"'Que guape!' shouted the general in his ear. 'You are the bravest
man living. You have saved my life. I am General Robles. Come to my
quarters to-morrow, if God gives us the grace to see another day.'

"He never stirred--as if deaf, without feeling, insensible.

"We rode away for the town, full of our relations, of our friends, of
whose fate we hardly dared to think. The soldiers ran by the side of
our horses. Everything was forgotten in the immensity of the
catastrophe overtaking a whole country."

Gaspar Ruiz saw the girl open her eyes. The raising of her eyelids
seemed to recall him from a trance. They were alone; the cries of
terror and distress from homeless people filled the plains of the
coast, remote and immense, coming like a whisper into their
loneliness.

She rose swiftly to her feet, darting fearful glances on all sides.
"What is it?" she cried out low, and peering into his face. "Where am
I?"

He bowed his head sadly, without a word.

" . . . Who are you?"

He knelt down slowly before her, and touched the hem of her coarse
black baize skirt. "Your slave," he said.

She caught sight then of the heap of rubbish that had been the house,
all misty in the cloud of dust. "Ah!" she cried, pressing her hand to
her forehead.

"I carried you out from there," he whispered at her feet.

"And they?" she asked in a great sob.

He rose, and taking her by the arms, led her gently towards the
shapeless ruin half overwhelmed by a land-slide. "Come and listen," he
said.

The serene moon saw them clambering over that heap of stones, joists
and tiles, which was a grave. They pressed their ears to the
interstices, listening for the sound of a groan, for a sigh of pain.

At last he said, "They died swiftly. You are alone."

She sat down on a piece of broken timber and put one arm across her
face. He waited--then, approaching his lips to her ear, "Let us go,"
he whispered.

"Never--never from here," she cried out, flinging her arms above her
head.

He stooped over her, and her raised arms fell upon his shoulders. He
lifted her up, steadied himself and began to walk, looking straight
before him.

"What are you doing?" she asked feebly.

"I am escaping from my enemies," he said, never once glancing at his
light burden.

"With me?" she sighed helplessly.

"Never without you," he said. "You are my strength."

He pressed her close to him. His face was grave and his footsteps
steady. The conflagrations bursting out in the ruins of destroyed
villages dotted the plain with red fires; and the sounds of distant
lamentations, the cries of "Misericordia! Misericordia!" made a
desolate murmur in his ears. He walked on, solemn and collected, as if
carrying something holy, fragile and precious.

The earth rocked at times under his feet.

Joseph Conrad

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