Subscribe for ad free access & additional features for teachers. Authors: 267, Books: 3,607, Poems & Short Stories: 4,435, Forum Members: 71,154, Forum Posts: 1,238,602, Quizzes: 344

Chapter 9

IX

WITH movements of mechanical care and an air of abstraction old
General Santierra lighted a long and thick cigar.

"It was a good many hours before we could send a party back to the
ravine," he said to his guests. "We had found one-third of the town
laid low, the rest shaken up; and the inhabitants, rich and poor,
reduced to the same state of distraction by the universal disaster.
The affected cheerfulness of some contrasted with the despair of
others. In the general confusion a number of reckless thieves, without
fear of God or man, became a danger to those who from the downfall of
their homes had managed to save some valuables. Crying 'Misericordia'
louder than any at every tremor, and beating their breasts with one
hand, these scoundrels robbed the poor victims with the other, not
even stopping short of murder.

"General Robles' division was occupied entirely in guarding the
destroyed quarters of the town from the depredations of these inhuman
monsters. Taken up with my duties of orderly officer, it was only in
the morning that I could assure myself of the safety of my own family.

"My mother and my sisters had escaped with their lives from that ball-
room, where I had left them early in the evening. I remember those two
beautiful young women--God rest their souls--as if I saw them this
moment, in the garden of our destroyed house, pale but active,
assisting some of our poor neighbours, in their soiled ball-dresses
and with the dust of fallen walls on their hair. As to my mother, she
had a stoical soul in her frail body. Half-covered by a costly shawl,
she was lying on a rustic seat by the side of an ornamental basin
whose fountain had ceased to play for ever on that night.

"I had hardly had time to embrace them all with transports of joy,
when my chief, coming along, dispatched me to the ravine with a few
soldiers, to bring in my strong man, as he called him, and that pale
girl.

"But there was no one for us to bring in. A land-slide had covered the
ruins of the house; and it was like a large mound of earth with only
the ends of some timbers visible here and there--nothing more.

"Thus were the tribulations of the old Royalist couple ended. An
enormous and unconsecrated grave had swallowed them up alive, in their
unhappy obstinacy against the will of a people to be free. And their
daughter was gone.

"That Gaspar Ruiz had carried her off I understood very well. But as
the case was not foreseen, I had no instructions to pursue them. And
certainly I had no desire to do so. I had grown mistrustful of my
interference. It had never been successful, and had not even appeared
creditable. He was gone. Well, let him go. And he had carried off the
Royalist girl! Nothing better. Vaya con Dios. This was not the time to
bother about a deserter who, justly or unjustly, ought to have been
dead, and a girl for whom it would have been better to have never been
born.

"So I marched my men back to the town.

"After a few days, order having been re-established, all the principal
families, including my own, left for Santiago. We had a fine house
there. At the same time the division of Robles was moved to new
cantonments near the capital. This change suited very well the state
of my domestic and amorous feelings.

"One night, rather late, I was called to my chief. I found General
Robles in his quarters, at ease, with his uniform off, drinking neat
brandy out of a tumbler--as a precaution, he used to say, against the
sleeplessness induced by the bites of mosquitoes. He was a good
soldier, and he taught me the art and practice of war.

"No doubt God has been merciful to his soul; for his motives were
never other than patriotic, if his character was irascible. As to the
use of mosquito nets, he considered it effeminate, shameful--unworthy
of a soldier.

"I noticed at the first glance that his face, already very red, wore
an expression of high good-humour.

"'Aha! senor teniente,' he cried loudly, as I saluted at the door.
'Behold! Your strong man has turned up again.'

"He extended to me a folded letter, which I saw was superscribed 'To
the Commander-in-Chief of the Republican Armies.'

"'This,' General Robles went on in his loud voice, 'was thrust by a
boy into the hand of a sentry at the Quartel General, while the fellow
stood there thinking of his girl, no doubt--for before he could
gather his wits together, the boy had disappeared amongst the market
people, and he protests he could not recognise him to save his life.'

"My chief told me further that the soldier had given the letter to the
sergeant of the guard, and that ultimately it had reached the hands of
our generalissimo. His Excellency had deigned to take cognisance of it
with his own eyes. After that he had referred the matter in confidence
to General Robles.

"The letter, senores, I cannot now recollect textually. I saw the
signature of Gaspar Ruiz. He was an audacious fellow. He had snatched
a soul for himself out of a cataclysm, remember. And now it was that
soul which had dictated the terms of his letter. Its tone was very
independent. I remember it struck me at the time as noble--dignified.
It was, no doubt, her letter. Now I shudder at the depth of its
duplicity. Gaspar Ruiz was made to complain of the injustice of which
he had been a victim. He invoked his previous record of fidelity and
courage. Having been saved from death by the miraculous interposition
of Providence, he could think of nothing but of retrieving his
character. This, he wrote, he could not hope to do in the ranks as a
discredited soldier still under suspicion. He had the means to give a
striking proof of his fidelity. And he ended by proposing to the
General-in-Chief a meeting at midnight in the middle of the Plaza
before the Moneta. The signal would be to strike fire with flint and
steel three times, which was not too conspicuous and yet distinctive
enough for recognition.

"San Martin, the great Liberator, loved men of audacity and courage.
Besides, he was just and compassionate. I told him as much of the
man's story as I knew, and was ordered to accompany him on the
appointed night. The signals were duly exchanged. It was midnight, and
the whole town was dark and silent. Their two cloaked figures came
together in the centre of the vast Plaza, and, keeping discreetly at a
distance, I listened for an hour or more to the murmur of their
voices. Then the general motioned me to approach; and as I did so I
heard San Martin, who was courteous to gentle and simple alike, offer
Gaspar Ruiz the hospitality of the headquarters for the night. But the
soldier refused, saying that he would not be worthy of that honour
till he had done something.

"'You cannot have a common deserter for your guest, Excellency,' he
protested with a low laugh, and stepping backwards, merged slowly into
the night.

"The Commander-in-Chief observed to me, as we turned away: 'He had
somebody with him, our friend Ruiz. I saw two figures for a moment. It
was an unobtrusive companion.'

"I too had observed another figure join the vanishing form of Gaspar
Ruiz. It had the appearance of a short fellow in a poncho and a big
hat. And I wondered stupidly who it could be he had dared take into
his confidence. I might have guessed it could be no one but that fatal
girl--alas!

"Where he kept her concealed I do not know. He had--it was known
afterwards--an uncle, his mother's brother, a small shopkeeper in
Santiago. Perhaps it was there that she found a roof and food.
Whatever she found, it was poor enough to exasperate her pride and
keep up her anger and hate. It is certain she did not accompany him on
the feat he undertook to accomplish first of all. It was nothing less
than the destruction of a store of war material collected secretly by
the Spanish authorities in the south, in a town called Linares. Gaspar
Ruiz was entrusted with a small party only, but they proved themselves
worthy of San Martin's confidence. The season was not propitious. They
had to swim swollen rivers. They seemed, however, to have galloped
night and day, outriding the news of their foray, and holding straight
for the town, a hundred miles into the enemy's country, till at break
of day they rode into it sword in hand, surprising the little
garrison. It fled without making a stand, leaving most of its officers
in Gaspar Ruiz' hands.

"A great explosion of gunpowder ended the conflagration of the
magazines the raiders had set on fire without loss of time. In less
than six hours they were riding away at the same mad speed, without
the loss of a single man. Good as they were, such an exploit is not
performed without a still better leadership.

"I was dining at the headquarters when Gas-par Ruiz himself brought
the news of his success. And it was a great blow to the Royalist
troops. For a proof he displayed to us the garrison's flag. He took it
from under his poncho and flung it on the table. The man was
transfigured; there was something exulting and menacing in the
expression of his face. He stood behind General San Martin's chair and
looked proudly at us all. He had a round blue cap edged with silver
braid on his head, and we all could see a large white scar on the nape
of his sunburnt neck.

"Somebody asked him what he had done with the captured Spanish
officers.

"He shrugged his shoulders scornfully. 'What a question to ask! In a
partisan war you do not burden yourself with prisoners. I let them go
--and here are their sword-knots.'

"He flung a bunch of them on the table upon the flag. Then General
Robles, whom I was attending there, spoke up in his loud, thick voice:
'You did! Then, my brave friend, you do not know yet how a war like
ours ought to be conducted. You should have done--this.' And he
passed the edge of his hand across his own throat.

"Alas, senores! It was only too true that on both sides this contest,
in its nature so heroic, was stained by ferocity. The murmurs that
arose at General Robles' words were by no means unanimous in tone. But
the generous and brave San Martin praised the humane action, and
pointed out to Ruiz a place on his right hand. Then rising with a full
glass he proposed a toast: 'Caballeros and comrades-in-arms, let us
drink the health of Captain Gaspar Ruiz.' And when we had emptied our
glasses: 'I intend,' the Commander-in-Chief continued, 'to entrust him
with the guardianship of our southern frontier, while we go afar to
liberate our brethren in Peru. He whom the enemy could not stop from
striking a blow at his very heart will know how to protect the
peaceful populations we leave behind us to pursue our sacred task.'
And he embraced the silent Gaspar Ruiz by his side.

"Later on, when we all rose from table, I approached the latest
officer of the army with my congratulations. 'And, Captain Ruiz,' I
added, 'perhaps you do not mind telling a man who has always believed
in the uprightness of your character, what became of Doņa Erminia on
that night?'

"At this friendly question his aspect changed. He looked at me from
under his eyebrows with the heavy, dull glance of a guasso--of a
peasant.

"Senor teniente,' he said thickly, and as if very much cast down, 'do
not ask me about the senorita, for I prefer not to think about her at
all when I am amongst you.'

"He looked, with a frown, all about the room, full of smoking and
talking officers. Of course I did not insist.

"These, senores, were the last words I was to hear him utter for a
long, long time. The very next day we embarked for our arduous
expedition to Peru, and we only heard of Gaspar Ruiz' doings in the
midst of battles of our own. He had been appointed military guardian
of our southern province. He raised a partida. But his leniency to the
conquered foe displeased the Civil Governor, who was a formal, uneasy
man, full of suspicions. He forwarded reports against Gaspar Ruiz to
the Supreme Government; one of them being that he had married
publicly, with great pomp, a woman of Royalist tendencies. Quarrels
were sure to arise between these two men of very different character.
At last the Civil Governor began to complain of his inactivity, and to
hint at treachery, which, he wrote, would be not surprising in a man
of such antecedents. Gaspar Ruiz heard of it. His rage flamed up, and
the woman ever by his side knew how to feed it with perfidious words.
I do not know whether really the Supreme Government ever did--as he
complained afterwards--send orders for his arrest. It seems certain
that the Civil Governor began to tamper with his officers, and that
Gaspar Ruiz discovered the fact.

"One evening, when the Governor was giving a tertullia Gaspar Ruiz,
followed by six men he could trust, appeared riding through the town
to the door of the Government House, and entered the sala armed, his
hat on his head. As the Governor, displeased, advanced to meet him, he
seized the wretched man round the body, carried him off from the midst
of the appalled guests, as though he were a child, and flung him down
the outer steps into the street. An angry hug from Gaspar Ruiz was
enough to crush the life out of a giant; but in addition Gaspar Ruiz'
horsemen fired their pistols at the body of the Governor as it lay
motionless at the bottom of the stairs."

Joseph Conrad

Sorry, no summary available yet.