By Joseph Conrad
A Revolutionary war raises many strange characters out of the obscurity
which is the common lot of humble lives in an undisturbed state of
Certain individualities grow into fame through their vices and their
virtues, or simply by their actions, which may have a temporary
importance; and then they become forgotten. The names of a few leaders
alone survive the end of armed strife and are further preserved in
history; so that, vanishing from men's active memories, they still exist
The name of General Santierra attained that cold, paper-and-ink
immortality. He was a South American of good family, and the books
published in his lifetime numbered him amongst the liberators of that
continent from the oppressive rule of Spain.
That long contest, waged for independence on one side and for dominion on
the other, developed, in the course of years and the vicissitudes of
changing fortune, the fierceness and inhumanity of a struggle for life.
All feelings of pity and compassion disappeared in the growth of political
hatred. And, as is usual in war, the mass of the people, who had the least
to gain by the issue, suffered most in their obscure persons and their
General Santierra began his service as lieutenant in the patriot army
raised and commanded by the famous San Martin, afterwards conqueror of
Lima and liberator of Peru. A great battle had just been fought on the
banks of the river Bio-Bio. Amongst the prisoners made upon the routed
Royalist troops there was a soldier called Gaspar Ruiz. His powerful build
and his big head rendered him remarkable amongst his fellow-captives. The
personality of the man was unmistakable. Some months before, he had been
missed from the ranks of Republican troops after one of the many
skirmishes which preceded the great battle. And now, having been captured
arms in hand amongst Royalists, he could expect no other fate but to be
shot as a deserter.
Gaspar Ruiz, however, was not a deserter; his mind was hardly active
enough to take a discriminating view of the advantages or perils of
treachery. Why should he change sides? He had really been made a prisoner,
had suffered ill-usage and many privations. Neither side showed tenderness
to its adversaries. There came a day when he was ordered, together with
some other captured rebels, to march in the front rank of the Royal
troops. A musket, had been thrust into his hands. He had taken it. He had
marched. He did not want to be killed with circumstances of peculiar
atrocity for refusing to march. He did not understand heroism, but it was
his intention to throw his musket away at the first opportunity. Meantime
he had gone on loading and firing, from fear of having his brains blown
out, at the first sign of unwillingness, by some non-commissioned officer
of the King of Spain. He tried to set forth these elementary
considerations before the sergeant of the guard set over him and some
twenty other such deserters, who had been condemned summarily to be shot.
It was in the quadrangle of the fort at the back of the batteries which
command the road-stead of Valparaiso. The officer who had identified him
had gone on without listening to his protestations. His doom was sealed;
his hands were tied very tightly together behind his back; his body was
sore all over from the many blows with sticks and butts of muskets which
had hurried him along on the painful road from the place of his capture to
the gate of the fort. This was the only kind of systematic attention the
prisoners had received from their escort during a four days' journey
across a scantily watered tract of country. At the crossings of rare
streams they were permitted to quench their thirst by lapping hurriedly
like dogs. In the evening a few scraps of meat were thrown amongst them as
they dropped down dead-beat upon the stony ground of the halting-place.
As he stood in the courtyard of the castle in the early morning, after
having been driven hard all night, Gaspar Ruiz's throat was parched, and
his tongue felt very large and dry in his mouth.
And Gaspar Ruiz, besides being very thirsty, was stirred by a feeling of
sluggish anger, which he could not very well express, as though the vigour
of his spirit were by no means equal to the strength of his body.
The other prisoners in the batch of the condemned hung their heads,
looking obstinately on the ground. But Gaspar Ruiz kept on repeating:
"What should I desert for to the Royalists? Why should I desert? Tell me,
He addressed himself to the sergeant, who happened to belong to the same
part of the country as himself. But the sergeant, after shrugging his
meagre shoulders once, paid no further attention to the deep murmuring
voice at his back. It was indeed strange that Gaspar Ruiz should desert.
His people were in too humble a station to feel much the disadvantages of
any form of government. There was no reason why Gaspar Ruiz should wish to
uphold in his own person the rule of the King of Spain. Neither had he
been anxious to exert himself for its subversion. He had joined the side
of Independence in an extremely reasonable and natural manner. A band of
patriots appeared one morning early, surrounding his father's ranche,
spearing the watch-dogs and hamstringing a fat cow all in the twinkling of
an eye, to the cries of "Viva La Libertad!" Their officer discoursed of
Liberty with enthusiasm and eloquence after a long and refreshing sleep.
When they left in the evening, taking with them some of Ruiz, the
father's, best horses to replace their own lamed animals, Gaspar Ruiz went
away with them, having been invited pressingly to do so by the eloquent
Shortly afterwards a detachment of Royalist troops, coming to pacify the
district, burnt the ranche, carried off the remaining horses and cattle,
and having thus deprived the old people of all their worldly possessions,
left them sitting under a bush in the enjoyment of the inestimable boon of
GASPAR Ruiz, condemned to death as a deserter, was not thinking either of
his native place or of his parents, to whom he had been a good son on
account of the mildness of his character and the great strength of his
limbs. The practical advantage of this last was made still more valuable
to his father by his obedient disposition. Gaspar Ruiz had an acquiescent
But it was stirred now to a sort of dim revolt by his dislike to die the
death of a traitor. He was not a traitor. He said again to the sergeant:
"You know I did not desert, Estaban. You know I remained behind amongst
the trees with three others to keep the enemy back while the detachment
was running away!"
Lieutenant Santierra, little more than a boy at the time, and unused as
yet to the sanguinary imbecilities of a state of war, had lingered near
by, as if fascinated by the sight of these men who were to be shot
presently—"for an example"—as the Commandante had said.
The sergeant, without deigning to look at the prisoner, addressed himself
to the young officer with a superior smile.
"Ten men would not have been enough to make him a prisoner, mi teniente.
Moreover, the other three rejoined the detachment after dark. Why should
he, unwounded and the strongest of them all, have failed to do so?"
"My strength is as nothing against a mounted man with a lasso," Gaspar
Ruiz protested eagerly. "He dragged me behind his horse for half a mile."
At this excellent reason the sergeant only laughed contemptuously. The
young officer hurried away after the Commandante.
Presently the adjutant of the castle came by. He was a truculent,
raw-boned man in a ragged uniform. His spluttering voice issued out of a
flat, yellow face. The sergeant learned from him that the condemned men
would not be shot till sunset. He begged then to know what he was to do
with them meantime.
The adjutant looked savagely round the courtyard, and, pointing to the
door of a small dungeon-like guard-room, receiving light and air through
one heavily-barred window, said: "Drive the scoundrels in there."
The sergeant, tightening his grip upon the stick he carried in virtue of
his rank, executed this order with alacrity and zeal. He hit Gaspar Ruiz,
whose movements were slow, over his head and shoulders. Gaspar Ruiz stood
still for a moment under the shower of blows, biting his lip thoughtfully
as if absorbed by a perplexing mental process—then followed the
others without haste. The door was locked, and the adjutant carried off
By noon the heat of that low vaulted place crammed to suffocation had
become unbearable. The prisoners crowded towards the window, begging their
guards for a drop of water; but the soldiers remained lying in indolent
attitudes wherever there was a little shade under a wall, while the sentry
sat with his back against the door smoking a cigarette, and raising his
eyebrows philosophically from time to time. Gaspar Ruiz had pushed his way
to the window with irresistible force. His capacious chest needed more air
than the others; his big face, resting with its chin on the ledge, pressed
close to the bars, seemed to support the other faces crowding up for
breath. From moaned entreaties they had passed to desperate cries, and the
tumultuous howling of those thirsty men obliged a young officer who was
just then crossing the courtyard to shout in order to make himself heard.
"Why don't you give some water to these prisoners!"
The sergeant, with an air of surprised innocence, excused himself by the
remark that all those men were condemned to die in a very few hours.
Lieutenant Santierra stamped his foot. "They are condemned to death, not
to torture," he shouted. "Give them some water at once."
Impressed by this appearance of anger, the soldiers bestirred themselves,
and the sentry, snatching up his musket, stood to attention.
But when a couple of buckets were found and filled from the well, it was
discovered that they could not be passed through the bars, which were set
too close. At the prospect of quenching their thirst, the shrieks of those
trampled down in the struggle to get near the opening became very
heartrending. But when the soldiers who had lifted the buckets towards the
window put them to the ground again helplessly, the yell of disappointment
was still more terrible.
The soldiers of the army of Independence were not equipped with canteens.
A small tin cup was found, but its approach to the opening caused such a
commotion, such yells of rage and' pain in the vague mass of limbs behind
the straining faces at the window, that Lieutenant Santierra cried out
hurriedly, "No, no—you must open the door, sergeant."
The sergeant, shrugging his shoulders, explained that he had no right to
open the door even if he had had the key. But he had not the key. The
adjutant of the garrison kept the key. Those men were giving much
unnecessary trouble, since they had to die at sunset in any case. Why they
had not been shot at once early in the morning he could not understand.
Lieutenant Santierra kept his back studiously to the window. It was at his
earnest solicitations that the Commandante had delayed the execution. This
favour had been granted to him in consideration of his distinguished
family and of his father's high position amongst the chiefs of the
Republican party. Lieutenant Santierra believed that the General
commanding would visit the fort some time in the afternoon, and he
ingenuously hoped that his naive intercession would induce that severe man
to pardon some, at least, of those criminals. In the revulsion of his
feeling his interference stood revealed now as guilty and futile meddling.
It appeared to him obvious that the general would never even consent to
listen to his petition. He could never save those men, and he had only
made himself responsible for the sufferings added to the cruelty of their
"Then go at once and get the key from the adjutant," said Lieutenant
The sergeant shook his head with a sort of bashful smile, while his eyes
glanced sideways at Gaspar Ruiz's face, motionless and silent, staring
through the bars at the bottom of a heap of other haggard, distorted,
His worship the adjutant de Plaza, the sergeant murmured, was having his
siesta; and supposing that he, the sergeant, would be allowed access to
him, the only result he expected would be to have his soul flogged out of
his body for presuming to disturb his worship's repose. He made a
deprecatory movement with his hands, and stood stock-still, looking down
modestly upon his brown toes.
Lieutenant Santierra glared with indignation, but hesitated. His handsome
oval face, as smooth as a girl's, flushed with the shame of his
perplexity. Its nature humiliated his spirit. His hairless upper lip
trembled; he seemed on the point of either bursting into a fit of rage or
into tears of dismay.
Fifty years later, General Santierra, the venerable relic of revolutionary
times, was well able to remember the feelings of the young lieutenant.
Since he had given up riding altogether, and found it difficult to walk
beyond the limits of his garden, the general's greatest delight, was to
entertain in his house the officers of the foreign men-of-war visiting the
harbour. For Englishmen he had a preference, as for old companions in
arms. English naval men of all ranks accepted his hospitality with
curiosity, because he had known Lord Cochrane and had taken part, on board
the patriot squadron commanded by that marvellous seaman, in the
cutting-out and blockading operations before Callao—an episode of
unalloyed glory in the wars of Independence and of endless honour in the
fighting tradition of Englishmen. He was a fair linguist, this ancient
survivor of the Liberating armies. A trick of smoothing his long white
beard whenever he was short of a word in French or English imparted an air
of leisurely dignity to the tone of his reminiscences.
"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
"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
"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
"'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
"GASPAR RUIZ had clambered up on the sill, and sat down there with his
feet against the thickness of the wall and his knees slightly bent. The
window was not quite broad enough for the length of his legs. It appeared
to my crestfallen perception that he meant to keep the window all to
himself. He seemed to be taking up a comfortable position. Nobody inside
dared to approach him now he could strike with his hands.
"'Por Dios!' I heard the sergeant muttering at my elbow, 'I shall shoot
him through the head now, and get rid of that trouble. He is a condemned
"At that I looked at him angrily. 'The general has not confirmed the
sentence,' I said—though I knew well in my heart that these were but
vain words. The sentence required no confirmation. 'You have no right to
shoot him unless he tries to escape,' I added firmly.
"'But sangre de Dios!' the sergeant yelled out, bringing his musket up to
the shoulder, 'he is escaping now. Look!'
"But I, as if that Gaspar Ruiz had cast a spell upon me, struck the musket
upward, and the bullet flew over the roofs somewhere. The sergeant dashed
his arm to the ground and stared. He might have commanded the soldiers to
fire, but he did not. And if he had he would not have been obeyed, I
think, just then.
"With his feet against the thickness of the wall, and his hairy hands
grasping the iron bar, Gaspar sat still. It was an attitude. Nothing
happened for a time. And suddenly it dawned upon us that he was
straightening his bowed back and contracting his arms. His lips were
twisted into a snarl. Next thing we perceived was that the bar of forged
iron was being bent slowly by the mightiness of his pull. The sun was
beating full upon his cramped, unquivering figure. A shower of sweat-drops
burst out of his forehead. Watching the bar grow crooked, I saw a little
blood ooze from under his finger-nails. Then he let go. For a moment he
remained all huddled up, with a hanging head, looking drowsily into the
upturned palms of his mighty hands. Indeed he seemed to have dozed off.
Suddenly he flung himself backwards on the sill, and setting the soles of
his bare feet against the other middle bar, he bent that one too, but in
the opposite direction from the first.
"Such was his strength, which in this case relieved my painful feelings.
And the man seemed to have done nothing. Except for the change of position
in order to use his feet, which made us all start by its swiftness, my
recollection is that of immobility. But he had bent the bars wide apart.
And now he could get out if he liked; but he dropped his legs inwards; and
looking over his shoulder beckoned to the soldiers. 'Hand up the water,'
he said. 'I will give them all a drink.'
"He was obeyed. For a moment I expected man and bucket to disappear,
overwhelmed by the rush of eagerness; I thought they would pull him down
with their teeth. There was a rush, but holding the bucket on his lap he
repulsed the assault of those wretches by the mere swinging of his feet.
They flew backwards at every kick, yelling with pain; and the soldiers
laughed, gazing at the window.
"They all laughed, holding their sides, except the sergeant, who was
gloomy and morose. He was afraid the prisoners would rise and break out—which
would have been a bad example. But there was no fear of that, and I stood
myself before the window with my drawn sword. When sufficiently tamed by
the strength of Gaspar Ruiz, they came up one by one, stretching their
necks and presenting their lips to the edge of the bucket which the strong
man tilted towards them from his knees with an extraordinary air of
charity, gentleness and compassion. That benevolent appearance was of
course the effect of his care in not spilling the water and of his
attitude as he sat on the sill; for, if a man lingered with his lips glued
to the rim of the bucket after Gaspar Ruiz had said 'You have had enough,'
there would be no tenderness or mercy in the shove of the foot which would
send him groaning and doubled up far into the interior of the prison,
where he would knock down two or three others before he fell himself. They
came up to him again and again; it looked as if they meant to drink the
well dry before going to their death; but the soldiers were so amused by
Gaspar Ruiz's systematic proceedings that they carried the water up to the
"When the adjutant came out after his siesta there was some trouble over
this affair, I can assure you. And the worst of it, that the general whom
we expected never came to the castle that day."
The guests of General Santierra unanimously expressed their regret that
the man of such strength and patience had not been saved.
"He was not saved by my interference," said the General. "The prisoners
were led to execution half an hour before sunset. Gaspar Ruiz, contrary to
the sergeant's apprehensions, gave no trouble. There was no necessity to
get a cavalry man with a lasso in order to subdue him, as if he were a
wild bull of the campo. I believe he marched out with his arms free
amongst the others who were bound. I did not see. I was not there. I had
been put under arrest for interfering with the prisoner's guard. About
dusk, sitting dismally in my quarters, I heard three volleys fired, and
thought that I should never hear of Gaspar Ruiz again. He fell with the
others. But we were to hear of him nevertheless, though the sergeant
boasted that, as he lay on his face expiring or dead in the heap of the
slain, he had slashed his neck with a sword. He had done this, he said, to
make sure of ridding the world of a dangerous traitor.
"I confess to you, senores, that I thought of that strong man with a sort
of gratitude, and with some admiration. He had used his strength
honourably. There dwelt, then, in his soul no fierceness corresponding to
the vigour of his body."
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
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
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
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.
"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
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
"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
"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
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
"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
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."
GENERAL SANTIERRA was right in his surmise. Such was the exact nature of
the assistance which Gaspar Ruiz, peasant son of peasants, received from
the Royalist family whose daughter had opened the door—of their
miserable refuge to his extreme distress. Her sombre resolution ruled the
madness of her father and the trembling bewilderment of her mother.
She had asked the strange man on the door-step, "Who wounded you?"
"The soldiers, senora," Gaspar Ruiz had answered, in a faint voice.
"Deserter," he gasped, leaning against the wall under the scrutiny of her
black eyes. "I was left for dead over there."
She led him through the house out to a small hut of clay and reeds, lost
in the long grass of the overgrown orchard. He sank on a heap of maize
straw in a corner, and sighed profoundly.
"No one will look for you here," she said, looking down at him. "Nobody
comes near us. We too have been left for dead—here."
He stirred uneasily on his heap of dirty straw, and the pain in his neck
made him groan deliriously.
"I shall show Estaban some day that I am alive yet," he mumbled.
He accepted her assistance in silence, and the many days of pain went by.
Her appearances in the hut brought him relief and became connected with
the feverish dreams of angels which visited his couch; for Gaspar Ruiz was
instructed in the mysteries of his religion, and had even been taught to
read and write a little by the priest of his village. He waited for her
with impatience, and saw her pass out of the dark hut and disappear in the
brilliant sunshine with poignant regret. He discovered that, while he lay
there feeling so very weak, he could, by closing his eyes, evoke her face
with considerable distinctness. And this discovered faculty charmed the
long solitary hours of his convalescence. Later, when he began to regain
his strength, he would creep at dusk from his hut to the house and sit on
the step of the garden door.
In one of the rooms the mad father paced to and fro, muttering to himself
with short abrupt laughs. In the passage, sitting on a stool, the mother
sighed and moaned. The daughter, in rough threadbare clothing, and her
white haggard face half hidden by a coarse manta, stood leaning against
the lintel of the door. Gaspar Ruiz, with his elbows propped on his knees
and his head resting in his hands, talked to the two women in an
The common misery of destitution would have made a bitter mockery of a
marked insistence on social differences. Gaspar Ruiz understood this in
his simplicity. From his captivity amongst the Royalists he could give
them news of people they knew. He described their appearance; and when he
related the story of the battle in which he was recaptured the two women
lamented the blow to their cause and the ruin of their secret hopes.
He had no feeling either way. But he felt a great devotion for that young
girl. In his desire to appear worthy of her condescension, he boasted a
little of his bodily strength. He had nothing else to boast of. Because of
that quality his comrades treated him with as great a deference, he
explained, as though he had been a sergeant, both in camp and in battle.
"I could always get as many as I wanted to follow me anywhere, senorita. I
ought to have been made an officer, because I can read and write."
Behind him the silent old lady fetched a moaning sigh from time to time;
the distracted father muttered to himself, pacing the sala; and Gaspar
Ruiz would raise his eyes now and then to look at the daughter of these
He would look at her with curiosity because she was alive, and also with
that feeling of familiarity and awe with which he had contemplated in
churches the inanimate and powerful statues of the saints, whose
protection is invoked in dangers and difficulties. His difficulty was very
He could not remain hiding in an orchard for ever and ever. He knew also
very well that before he had gone half a day's journey in any direction,
he would be picked up by one of the cavalry patrols scouring the country,
and brought into one or another of the camps where the patriot army
destined for the liberation of Peru was collected. There he would in the
end be recognised as Gaspar Ruiz—the deserter to the Royalists—and
no doubt shot very effectually this time. There did not seem any place in
the world for the innocent Gaspar Ruiz anywhere. And at this thought his
simple soul surrendered itself to gloom and resentment as black as night.
They had made him a soldier forcibly. He did not mind being a soldier. And
he had been a good soldier as he had been a good son, because of his
docility and his strength. But now there was no use for either. They had
taken him from his parents, and he could no longer be a soldier—not
a good soldier at any rate. Nobody would listen to his explanations. What
injustice it was! What injustice!
And in a mournful murmur he would go over the story of his capture and
recapture for the twentieth time. Then, raising his eyes to the silent
girl in the doorway, "Si, senorita," he would say with a deep sigh,
"injustice has made this poor breath in my body quite worthless to me and
to anybody else. And I do not care who robs me of it."
One evening, as he exhaled thus the plaint of his wounded soul, she
condescended to say that, if she were a man, she would consider no life
worthless which held the possibility of revenge.
She seemed to be speaking to herself. Her voice was low. He drank in the
gentle, as if dreamy sound, with a consciousness of peculiar delight, of
something warming his breast like a draught of generous wine.
"True, senorita," he said, raising his face up to hers slowly: "there is
Estaban, who must be shown that I am not dead after all."
The mutterings of the mad father had ceased long before; the sighing
mother had withdrawn somewhere into one of the empty rooms. All was still
within as well as without, in the moonlight bright as day on the wild
orchard full of inky shadows. Gaspar Ruiz saw the dark eyes of Doņa
Erminia look down at him.
"Ala! The sergeant," she muttered disdainfully.
"Why! He has wounded me with his sword," he protested, bewildered by the
contempt that seemed to shine livid on her pale face.
She crushed him with her glance. The power of her will to be understood
was so strong that it kindled in him the intelligence of unexpressed
"What else did you expect me to do?" he cried, as if suddenly driven to
despair. "Have I the power to do more? Am I a general with an army at my
back?—miserable sinner that I am to be despised by you at last."
"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
"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
"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
"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
"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
"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
"Never—never from here," she cried out, flinging her arms above her
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
"What are you doing?" she asked feebly.
"I am escaping from my enemies," he said, never once glancing at his light
"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
The earth rocked at times under his feet.
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
"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
"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
"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
"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
"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
"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
"AFTER this—as he called it—act of justice, Ruiz crossed the
Rio Blanco, followed by the greater part of his band, and entrenched
himself upon a hill A company of regular troops sent out foolishly against
him was surrounded, and destroyed almost to a man. Other expeditions,
though better organised, were equally unsuccessful.
"It was during these sanguinary skirmishes that his wife first began to
appear on horseback at his right hand. Rendered proud and self-confident
by his successes, Ruiz no longer charged at the head of his partida, but
presumptuously, like a general directing the movements of an army, he
remained in the rear, well mounted and motionless on an eminence, sending
out his orders. She was seen repeatedly at his side, and for a long time
was mistaken for a man. There was much talk then of a mysterious
white-faced chief, to whom the defeats of our troops were ascribed. She
rode like an Indian woman, astride, wearing a broad-rimmed man's hat and a
dark poncho. Afterwards, in the day of their greatest prosperity, this
poncho was embroidered in gold, and she wore then, also, the sword of poor
Don Antonio de Leyva. This veteran Chilean officer, having the misfortune
to be surrounded with his small force, and running short of ammunition,
found his death at the hands of the Arauco Indians, the allies and
auxiliaries of Gaspar Ruiz. This was the fatal affair long remembered
afterwards as the 'Massacre of the Island.' The sword of the unhappy
officer was presented to her by Peneleo, the Araucanian chief; for these
Indians, struck by her aspect, the deathly pallor of her face, which no
exposure to the weather seemed to affect, and her calm indifference under
fire, looked upon her as a supernatural being, or at least as a witch. By
this superstition the prestige and authority of Gaspar Ruiz amongst these
ignorant people were greatly augmented. She must have savoured her
vengeance to the full on that day when she buckled on the sword of Don
Antonio de Leyva. It never left her side, unless she put on her woman's
clothes—not that she would or could ever use it, but she loved to
feel it beating upon her thigh as a perpetual reminder and symbol of the
dishonour to the arms of the Republic. She was insatiable. Moreover, on
the path she had led Gaspar Ruiz upon, there is no stopping. Escaped
prisoners—and they were not many—used to relate how with a few
whispered words she could change the expression of his face and revive his
flagging animosity. They told how after every skirmish, after every raid,
after every successful action, he would ride up to her and look into her
face. Its haughty-calm was never relaxed. Her embrace, senores, must have
been as cold as the embrace of a statue. He tried to melt her icy heart in
a stream of warm blood. Some English naval officers who visited him at
that time noticed the strange character of his infatuation."
At the movement of surprise and curiosity in his audience General
Santierra paused for a moment.
"Yes—English naval officers," he repeated. "Ruiz had consented to
receive them to arrange for the liberation of some prisoners of your
nationality. In the territory upon which he ranged, from sea coast to the
Cordillera, there was a bay where the ships of that time, after rounding
Gape Horn, used to resort for wood and water. There, decoying the crew on
shore, he captured first the whaling brig Hersalia, and afterwards made
himself master by surprise of two more ships, one English and one
"It was rumoured at the time that he dreamed of setting up a navy of his
own. But that, of course, was impossible. Still, manning the brig with
part of her own crew, and putting an officer and a good many men of his
own on board, he sent her off to the Spanish Governor of the island of
Chiloe with a report of his exploits, and a demand for assistance in the
war against the rebels. The Governor could not do much for him; but he
sent in return two light field-pieces, a letter of compliments, with a
colonel's commission in the royal forces, and a great Spanish flag. This
standard with much ceremony was hoisted over his house in the heart of the
Arauco country. Surely on that day she may have smiled on her guasso
husband with a less haughty reserve.
"The senior officer of the English squadron on our coast made
representations to our Government as to these captures. But Gaspar Ruiz
refused to treat with us. Then an English frigate proceeded to the bay,
and her captain, doctor, and two lieutenants travelled inland under a safe
conduct. They were well received, and spent three days as guests of the
partisan chief. A sort of military, barbaric state was kept up at the
residence. It was furnished with the loot of frontier towns. When first
admitted to the principal sala, they saw his wife lying down (she was not
in good health then), with Gaspar Ruiz sitting at the foot of the couch.
His-hat was lying on the floor, and his hands reposed on the hilt of his
"During that first conversation he never removed his big hands from the
sword-hilt, except once, to arrange the coverings about her, with gentle,
careful touches. They noticed that when ever she spoke he would fix his
eyes upon her in a kind of expectant, breathless attention, and seemingly
forget the existence of the world and his own existence too. In the course
of the farewell banquet, at which she was present reclining on her couch,
he burst forth into complaints of the treatment he had received. After
General San Martin's departure he had been beset by spies, slandered by
civil officials, his services ignored, his liberty and even his life
threatened by the Chilian Government. He got up from the table, thundered
execrations pacing the room wildly, then sat down on the couch at his
wife's feet, his breast heaving, his eyes fixed on the floor. She reclined
on her back, her head on the cushions, her eyes nearly closed.
"'And now I am an honoured Spanish officer,' he added in a calm voice.
"The captain of the English frigate then took the opportunity to inform
him gently that Lima had fallen, and that by the terms of a convention the
Spaniards were withdrawing from the whole continent.
"Gaspar Ruiz raised his head, and without hesitation, speaking with
suppressed vehemence, declared, that if not a single Spanish soldier were
left in the whole of South America he would persist in carrying on the
contest against Chile to the last drop of blood. When he finished that mad
tirade his wife's long white hand was raised, and she just caressed his
knee with the tips of her fingers for a fraction of a second.
"For the rest of the officers' stay, which did not extend for more than
half an hour after the banquet, that ferocious chieftain of a desperate
partida overflowed with amiability and kindness. He had been hospitable
before, but now it seemed as though he could not do enough for the comfort
and safety of his visitors' journey back to their ship.
"Nothing, I have been told, could have presented a greater contrast to his
late violence or the habitual taciturn reserve of his manner. Like a man
elated beyond measure by an unexpected happiness, he overflowed with
good-will, amiability, and attentions. He embraced the officers like
brothers, almost with tears in his eyes. The released prisoners were
presented each with a piece of gold. At the last moment, suddenly, he
declared he could do no less than restore to the masters of the merchant
vessels all their private property. This unexpected generosity caused some
delay in the departure of the party, and their first march was very short.
"Late in the evening Gaspar Ruiz rode up with an escort, to their camp
fires, bringing along with him a mule loaded with cases of wine. He had
come, he said, to drink a stirrup cup with his English friends, whom he
would never see again. He was mellow and joyous in his temper. He told
stories of his own exploits, laughed like a boy, borrowed a guitar from
the Englishmen's chief muleteer, and sitting cross-legged on his superfine
poncho spread before the glow of the embers, sang a guasso love-song in a
tender voice. Then his head dropped on his breast, his hands fell to the
ground; the guitar rolled off his knees—and a great hush fell over
the camp after the love-song of the implacable partisan who had made so
many of our people weep for destroyed homes and for loves cut short.
"Before anybody could make a sound he sprang up from the ground and called
for his horse. 'Adios, my friends!' he cried, 'Go with God. I love you.
And tell them well in Santiago that between Gaspar Ruiz, colonel of the
King of Spain, and the republican carrion-crows of Chile there is war to
the last breath—war! war! war!'
"With a great yell of 'War! war! war!' which his escort took up, they rode
away, and the sound of hoofs and of voices died out in the distance
between the slopes of the hills.
"The two young English officers were convinced that Ruiz was mad. How do
you say that?—tile loose—eh? But the doctor, an observant
Scotsman with much shrewdness and philosophy in his character, told me
that it was a very curious case of possession. I met him many years
afterwards, but he remembered the experience very well. He told me too
that in his opinion that woman did not lead Gaspar Ruiz into the practice
of sanguinary treachery by direct persuasion, but by the subtle way of
awakening and keeping alive in his simple mind a burning sense of an
irreparable wrong. Maybe, maybe. But I would say that she poured half of
her vengeful soul into the strong clay of that man, as you may pour
intoxication, madness, poison into an empty cup.
"If he wanted war he got it in earnest when our victorious army began to
return from Peru. Systematic operations were planned against this blot on
the honour and prosperity of our hardly-won independence. General Robles
commanded, with his well-known ruthless severity. Savage reprisals were
exercised on both sides, and no quarter was given in the field. Having won
my promotion in the Peru campaign, I was a captain on the staff.
"Gaspar Ruiz found himself hard pressed; at the same time we heard by
means of a fugitive priest who had been carried off from his village
presbytery, and galloped eighty miles into the hills to perform the
christening ceremony, that a daughter was born to them. To celebrate the
event, I suppose, Ruiz executed one or two brilliant forays clear away at
the rear of our forces, and defeated the detachments sent out to cut off
his retreat. General Robles nearly had a stroke of apoplexy from rage. He
found another cause of insomnia than the bites of mosquitoes; but against
this one, senores, tumblers of raw brandy had no more effect than so much
water. He took to railing and storming at me about my strong man. And from
our impatience to end this inglorious campaign, I am afraid that we young
officers became reckless and apt to take undue risks on service.
"Nevertheless, slowly, inch by inch as it were, our columns were closing
upon Gaspar Ruiz, though he had managed to raise all the Araucanian nation
of wild Indians against us. Then a year or more later our Government
became aware through its agents and spies that he had actually entered
into alliance with Carreras, the so-called dictator of the so-called
republic of Mendoza, on the other side of the mountains. Whether Gaspar
Ruiz had a deep political intention, or whether he wished only to secure a
safe retreat for his wife and child while he pursued remorselessly against
us his war of surprises and massacres, I cannot tell. The alliance,
however, was a fact. Defeated in his attempt to check our advance from the
sea, he retreated with his usual swiftness, and preparing for another hard
and hazardous tussle began by sending his wife with the little girl across
the Pequena range of mountains, on the frontier of Mendoza."
"Now Carreras, under the guise of politics and liberalism, was a scoundrel
of the deepest dye, and the unhappy state of Mendoza was the prey of
thieves, robbers, traitors and murderers, who formed his party. He was
under a noble exterior a man without heart, pity, honour, or conscience.
Tie aspired to nothing but tyranny, and though he would have made use of
Gaspar Ruiz for his nefarious designs, yet he soon became aware that to
propitiate the Chilian Government would answer his purpose better. I blush
to say that he made proposals to our Government to deliver up on certain
conditions the wife and child of the man who had trusted to his honour,
and that this offer was accepted.
"While on her way to Mendoza over the Pequena pass she was betrayed by her
escort of Carreras' men, and given up to the officer in command of a
Chilian fort on the upland at the foot of the main Cordillera range. This
atrocious transaction might have cost me dear, for as a matter of fact I
was a prisoner in Gaspar Ruiz' camp when he received the news. I had been
captured during a reconnaissance, my escort of a few troopers being
speared by the Indians of his bodyguard. I was saved from the same fate
because he recognised my features just in time. No doubt my friends
thought I was dead, and I would not have given much for my life at any
time. But the strong man treated me very well, because, he said, I had
always believed in his innocence and had tried to serve him when he was a
victim of injustice.
"'And now,' was his speech to me, 'you shall see that I always speak the
truth. You are safe.'
"I did not think I was very safe when I was called up to go to him one
night. He paced up and down like a wild beast, exclaiming, 'Betrayed!
"He walked up to me clenching his fists. 'I could cut your throat.'
"'Will that give your wife back to you?' I said as quietly as I could.
"'And the child!' he yelled out, as if mad. He fell into a chair and
laughed in a frightful, boisterous manner. 'Oh, no, you are safe.'
"I assured him that his wife's life was safe too; but I did not say what I
was convinced of—that he would never see her again. He wanted war to
the death, and the war could only end with his death.
"He gave me a strange, inexplicable look, and sat muttering blankly. 'In
their hands. In their hands.'
"I kept as still as a mouse before a cat. Suddenly he jumped up. 'What am
I doing here?' he cried; and opening the door, he yelled out orders to
saddle and mount. 'What is it?' he stammered, coming up to me. 'The
Pequena fort; a fort of palisades! Nothing. I would get her back if she
were hidden in the very heart of the mountain.' He amazed me by adding,
with an effort: 'I carried her off in my two arms while the earth
trembled. And the child at least is mine. She at least is mine!'
"Those were bizarre words; but I had no time for wonder.
"'You shall go with me;' he said violently. 'I may want to parley, and any
other messenger from Ruiz, the outlaw, would have his throat cut.'
"This was true enough. Between him and the rest of incensed mankind there
could be no communication, according to the customs of honour-able
"In less than half an hour we were in the saddle, flying wildly through
the night. He had only an escort of twenty men at his quarters, but would
not wait for more. He sent, however, messengers to Peneleo, the Indian
chief then ranging in the foothills, directing him to bring his warriors
to the uplands and meet him at the lake called the Eye of Water, near
whose shores the frontier fort of Pequena was built.
"We crossed the lowlands with that untired rapidity of movement which had
made Gaspar Ruiz' raids so famous. We followed the lower valleys up to
their precipitous heads. The ride was not without its dangers. A cornice
road on a perpendicular wall of basalt wound itself around a buttressing
rock, and at last we emerged from the gloom of a deep gorge upon the
upland of Peeņa.
"It was a plain of green wiry grass and thin flowering bushes; but high
above our heads patches of snow hung in the folds and crevices of the
great walls of rock. The little lake was as round as a staring eye. The
garrison of the fort were just driving in their small herd of cattle when
we appeared. Then the great wooden gates swung to, and that four-square
enclosure of broad blackened stakes pointed at the top and barely hiding
the grass roofs of the huts inside, seemed deserted, empty, without a
"But when summoned to surrender, by a man who at Gaspar Ruiz' order rode
fearlessly forward, those inside answered by a volley which rolled him and
his horse over. I heard Ruiz by my side grind his teeth. 'It does not
matter,' he said. 'Now you go.'
"Torn and faded as its rags were, the vestiges of my uniform were
recognised, and I was allowed to approach within speaking distance; and
then I had to wait, because a voice clamouring through a loophole with joy
and astonishment would not allow me to place a word. It was the voice of
Major Pajol, an old friend. He, like my other comrades, had thought me
killed a long time ago.
"'Put spurs to your horse, man!' he yelled, in the greatest excitement;
'we will swing the gate open for you.'
"I let the reins fall out of my hand and shook my head. 'I am on my
honour,' I cried.
"'To him!' he shouted, with infinite disgust.'
"'He promises you your life.'
"'Our life is our own. And do you, Santierra, advise us to surrender to
"'No!' I shouted. 'But he wants his wife and child, and he can cut you off
"'Then she would be the first to suffer. You may tell him that. Look here—this
is all nonsense: we shall dash out and capture you.
"'You shall not catch me alive,' I said firmly.
"'For God's sake,' I continued hastily, 'do not open the gate.' And I
pointed at the multitude of Peneleo's Indians who covered the shores of
"I had never seen so many of these savages together. Their lances seemed
as numerous as stalks of grass. Their hoarse voices made a vast,
inarticulate sound like the murmur of the sea.
"My friend Pajol was swearing to himself. 'Well, then—go to the
devil!' he shouted, exasperated. But as I swung round he repented, for I
heard him say hurriedly, 'Shoot the fool's horse before he gets away.
"He had good marksmen. Two shots rang out, and in the very act of turning
my horse staggered, fell and lay still as if struck by lightning. I had my
feet out of the stirrups and rolled clear of him; but I did not attempt to
rise. Neither dared they rush out to drag me in.
"The masses of Indians had begun to move upon the fort. They rode up in
squadrons, trailing their long chusos; then dismounted out of musket-shot,
and, throwing off their fur mantles, advanced naked to the attack,
stamping their feet and shouting in cadence. A sheet of flame ran three
times along the face of the fort without checking their steady march. They
crowded right up to the very stakes, flourishing their broad knives. But
this palisade was not fastened together with hide lashings in the usual
way, but with long iron nails, which they could not cut. Dismayed at the
failure of their usual method of forcing an entrance, the heathen, who had
marched so steadily against the musketry fire, broke and fled under the
volleys of the besieged.
"Directly they had passed me on their advance I got up and rejoined Gaspar
Ruiz on a low ridge which jutted out upon the plain. The musketry of his
own men had covered the attack, but now at a sign from him a trumpet
sounded the 'Cease fire.' Together we looked in silence at the hopeless
rout of the savages.
"'It must be a siege, then,' he muttered. And I detected him wringing his
"But what sort of siege could it be? Without any need for me to repeat my
friend Pajol's message, he dared not cut the water off from the besieged.
They had plenty of meat. And, indeed, if they had been short, he would
have been too anxious to send food into the stockade had he been able.
But, as a matter of fact, it was we on the plain who were beginning to
feel the pinch of hunger.
"Peneleo, the Indian chief, sat by our fire folded in his ample mantle of
guanaco skins. He was an athletic savage, with an enormous square shock
head of hair resembling a straw beehive in shape and size, and with grave,
surly, much-lined features. In his broken Spanish he repeated, growling
like a bad-tempered wild beast, that if an opening ever so small were made
in the stockade his men would march in and get the senora—not
"Gaspar Ruiz, sitting opposite him, kept his eyes fixed on the fort night
and day as it were, in awful silence and immobility. Meantime, by runners
from the lowlands that arrived nearly every day, we heard of the defeat of
one of his lieutenants in the Maipu valley. Scouts sent afar brought news
of a column of infantry advancing through distant passes to the relief of
the fort. They were slow, but we could trace their toilful progress up the
lower valleys. I wondered why Ruiz did not march to attack and destroy
this threatening force, in some wild gorge fit for an ambuscade, in
accordance with his genius for guerrilla warfare. But his genius seemed to
have abandoned him to his despair.
"It was obvious to me that he could not tear himself away from the sight
of the fort. I protest to you, senores, that I was moved almost to pity by
the sight of this powerless strong man sitting on the ridge, indifferent
to sun, to rain, to cold, to wind; with his hands clasped round his legs
and his chin resting on his knees, gazing—gazing—gazing.
"And the fort he kept his eyes fastened on was as still and silent as
himself. The garrison gave no sign of life. They did not even answer the
desultory fire directed at the loopholes.
"One night, as I strolled past him, he, without changing his attitude,
spoke to me unexpectedly 'I have sent for a gun,' he said. 'I shall have
time to get her back and retreat before your Robles manages to crawl up
"He had sent for a gun to the plains.
"It was long in coming, but at last it came. It was a seven-pounder
field-gun. Dismounted and lashed crosswise to two long poles, it had been
carried up the narrow paths between two mules with ease. His wild cry of
exultation at daybreak when he saw the gun escort emerge from the valley
rings in my ears now.
"But, senores, I have no words to depict his amazement, his fury, his
despair and distraction, when he heard that the animal loaded with the
gun-carriage had, during the last night march, somehow or other tumbled
down a precipice. He broke into menaces of death and torture against the
escort. I kept out of his way all that day, lying behind some bushes, and
wondering what he would do now. Retreat was left for him; but he could not
"I saw below me his artillerist Jorge, an old Spanish soldier, building up
a sort of structure with heaped-up saddles. The gun, ready-loaded was
lifted on to that, but in the act of firing the whole thing collapsed and
the shot flew high above the stockade.
"Nothing more was attempted. One of the ammunition mules had been lost
too, and they had no more than six shots to fire; amply enough to batter
down the gate, providing the gun was well laid. This was impossible
without it being properly mounted. There was no time nor means to
construct a carriage. Already every moment I expected to hear Robles'
bugle-calls echo amongst the crags.
"Peneleo, wandering about uneasily, draped in his skins, sat down for a
moment near me growling his usual tale.
"'Make an entrada—a hole. If make a hole, bueno. If not make a hole,
them vamos—we must go away.'
"After sunset I observed with surprise the Indians making preparations as
if for another assault. Their lines stood ranged in the shadows mountains.
On the plain in front of the fort gate I saw a group of men swaying about
in the same place.
"I walked down the ridge disregarded. The moonlight in the clear air of
the uplands was as bright as day, but the intense shadows confused my
sight, and I could not make out what they were doing. I heard voice Jorge,
artillerist, say in a queer, doubtful tone, 'It is loaded, senores.'
"Then another voice in that group pronounced firmly the words, 'Bring the
riata here.' It was the voice of Gaspar Ruiz.
"A silence fell, in which the popping shots of the besieged garrison rang
out sharply. They too had observed the group. But the distance was too
great, and in the spatter of spent musket-balls cutting up the ground, the
group opened, closed, swayed, giving me a glimpse of busy stooping figures
in its midst. I drew nearer, doubting whether this was a weird vision, a
suggestive and insensate dream.
"A strangely stifled voice commanded, 'Haul the hitches tighter.'
"'Si, senor,' several other voices answered in tones of awed alacrity.
"Then the stifled voice said: 'Like this. I must be free to breathe.'
"Then there was a concerned noise of many men together. 'Help him up,
hombres. Steady! Under the other arm.'
"That deadened voice, ordered: 'Bueno! Stand away from me, men.'
"I pushed my way through the recoiling circle, and heard once more that
same oppressed voice saying earnestly: 'Forget that I am a living man,
Jorge. Forget me altogether, and think of what you have to do.'
"'Be without fear, senor. You are nothing to me but a gun carriage, and I
shall not waste a shot.'
"I heard the spluttering of a port-fire, and smelt the saltpetre of the
match. I saw suddenly before me a nondescript shape on all fours like a
beast, but with a man's head drooping below a tubular projection over the
nape of the neck, and the gleam of a rounded mass of bronze on its back.
"In front of a silent semicircle of men it squatted alone with Jorge
behind it and a trumpeter motionless, his trumpet in his hand, by its
"Jorge, bent double, muttered, port-fire in hand: 'An inch to the left,
senor. Too much. So. Now, if you let yourself down a little by letting
your elbows bend, I will...'
"He leaped aside, lowering his port-fire, and a burst of flame darted out
of the muzzle of the gun lashed on the man's back.
"Then Gaspar Ruiz lowered himself slowly. 'Good shot?' he asked.
"'Full on, senor.'
"'Then load again.'
"He lay there before me on his breast under the darkly glittering bronze
of his monstrous burden, such as no love or strength of man had ever had
to bear in the lamentable history of the world. His arms were spread out,
and he resembled a prostrate penitent on the moonlit ground.
"Again I saw him raised to his hands and knees, and the men stand away
from him, and old Jorge stoop, glancing along the gun.
"'Left a little. Right an inch. Por Dios, senor, stop this trembling.
Where is your strength?'
"The old gunner's voice was cracked with emotion. He stepped aside, and
quick as lightning brought the spark to the touch-hole.
"'Excellent!' he cried tearfully; but Gaspar Ruiz lay for a long time
silent, flattened on the ground.
"'I am tired,' he murmured at last. 'Will another shot do it?'
"'Without doubt,' said Jorge, bending down to his ear.
"'Then—load,' I heard him utter distinctly. 'Trumpeter!'
"'I am here, senor, ready for your word.'
"'Blow a blast at this word that shall be heard from one end of Chile to
the other,' he said, in an extraordinarily strong voice. 'And you others
stand ready to cut this accursed riata, for then will be the time for me
to lead you in your rush. Now raise me up, and, you, Jorge—be quick
with your aim.'
"The rattle of musketry from the fort nearly drowned his voice. The
palisade was wreathed in smoke and flame.
"'Exert your force forward against the recoil, mi amo,' said the old
gunner shakily. 'Dig your fingers into the ground. So. Now!'
"A cry of exultation escaped him after the shot. The trumpeter raised his
trumpet nearly to his lips, and waited. But no word came from the
prostrate man. I fell on one knee, and heard all he had to say then.
"'Something broken,' he whispered, lifting his head a little, and turning
his eyes towards me in his hopelessly crushed attitude.
"'The gate hangs only by the splinters,' yelled Jorge.
"Gaspar Ruiz tried to speak, but his voice died out in his throat, and I
helped to roll the gun off his broken back. He was insensible.
"I kept my lips shut, of course. The signal for the Indians to attack was
never given. Instead, the bugle-calls of the relieving force, for which my
ears had thirsted so long, burst out, terrifying like the call of the Last
Day to our surprised enemies.
"A tornado, senores, a real hurricane of stampeded men, wild horses,
mounted Indians, swept over me as I cowered on the ground by the side of
Gaspar Ruiz, still stretched out on his face in the shape of a cross.
Peneleo, galloping for life, jabbed at me with his long chuso in passing—for
the sake of old acquaintance, I suppose. How I escaped the flying lead is
more difficult to explain. Venturing to rise on my knees too soon, some
soldiers of the 17th Taltal regiment, in their hurry to get at something
alive, nearly bayonetted me on the spot. They looked very disappointed too
when some officers galloping up drove them away with the flat of their
"It was General Robles with his staff. He wanted badly to make some
prisoners. He, too, seemed disappointed for a moment. 'What? Is it you?'
he cried. But he dismounted at once to embrace me, for he was an old
friend of my family. I pointed to the body at our feet, and said only
these two words:
"He threw his arms up in astonishment.
"'Aha! Your strong man! Always to the last with your strong man. No
matter. He saved our lives when the earth trembled enough to make the
bravest faint with fear. I was frightened out of my wits. But he—no!
Que guape! Where's the hero who got the best of him? Ha! ha! ha! What
killed him, chico?'
"'His own strength general,' I answered."
"BUT Gaspar Ruiz breathed yet. I had him carried in his poncho under the
shelter of some bushes on the very ridge from which he had been gazing so
fixedly at the fort while unseen death was hovering already over his head.
"Our troops had bivouacked round the fort. Towards daybreak I was not
surprised to hear that I was designated to command the escort of a
prisoner who was to be sent down at once to Santiago. Of course the
prisoner was Gaspar Ruiz' wife.
"'I have named you out of regard for your feelings,' General Robles
remarked. 'Though the woman really ought to be shot for all the harm she
has done to the Republic.'
"And as I made a movement of shocked protest, he continued:
"'Now he is as well as dead, she is of no importance. Nobody will know
what to do with her. However, the Government wants her.' He shrugged his
shoulders. 'I suppose he must have buried large quantities of his loot in
places that she alone knows of.'
"At dawn I saw her coming up the ridge, guarded by two soldiers, and
carrying her child on her arm.
"I walked to meet her.
"'Is he living yet?' she asked, confronting me with that white, impassive
face he used to look at in an adoring way.
"I bent my head, and led her round a clump of bushes without a word. His
eyes were open. He breathed with difficulty, and uttered her name with a
"She knelt at his head. The little girl, unconscious of him, and with her
big eyes, looking about, began to chatter suddenly, in a joyous, thin
voice. She pointed a tiny finger at the rosy glow of sunrise behind the
black shapes of the peaks. And while that child-talk, incomprehensible and
sweet to the ear, lasted, those two, the dying man and the kneeling woman,
remained silent, looking into each other's eyes, listening to the frail
sound. Then the prattle stopped. The child laid its head against its
mother's breast and was still.
"'It was for you,' he began. 'Forgive.' His voice failed him. Presently I
heard a mutter, and caught the pitiful words: 'Not strong enough.'
"She looked at him with an extraordinary intensity. He tried to smile, and
in a humble tone, 'Forgive me,' he repeated. 'Leaving you...'
"She bent down, dry-eyed, and in a steady voice: 'On all the earth I have
loved nothing but you, Gaspar,' she said.
"His head made a movement. His eyes revived. 'At last! 'he sighed out.
Then, anxiously, 'But is this true... is this true?'
"'As true as that there is no mercy and justice in this world,' she
answered him passionately. She stooped over his face. He tried to raise
his head, but it fell back, and when she kissed his lips he was already
dead. His glazed eyes stared at the sky, on which pink clouds floated very
high. But I noticed the eyelids of the child, pressed to its mother's
breast, droop and close slowly. She had gone to sleep.
"The widow of Gaspar Ruiz, the strong man, allowed me to lead her away
without shedding a tear.
"For travelling we had arranged for her a side-saddle very much like a
chair, with a board swung beneath to rest her feet on. And the first day
she rode without uttering a word, and hardly for one moment turning her
eyes away from the little girl, whom she held on her knees. At our first
camp I saw her during the night walking about, rocking the child in her
arms and gazing down at it by the light of the moon. After we had started
on our second day's march she asked me how soon we should come to the
first village of the inhabited country.
"I said we should be there about noon.
"'And will there be women there?' she inquired.
"I told her that it was a large village. 'There will be men and women
there, senora,' I said, 'whose hearts shall be made glad by the news that
all the unrest and war is over now.'
"'Yes, it is all over now,' she repeated. Then, after a time: 'senor
officer, what will your Government do with me?'
"'I do not know, senora,' I said. 'They will treat you well, no doubt. We
republicans are not savages, and take no vengeance on women.'
"She gave me a look at the word 'republicans' which I imagined full of
undying hate. But an hour or so afterwards, as we drew up to let the
baggage mules go first along a narrow path skirting a precipice, she
looked at me with such a white, troubled face that I felt a great pity for
"'Senor officer,' she said, 'I am weak, I tremble. It is an insensate
fear.' And indeed her lips did tremble, while she tried to smile glancing
at the beginning of the narrow path which was not so dangerous after all.
'I am afraid I shall drop the child. Gaspar saved your life, you
remember.... Take her from me.'
"I took the child out of her extended arms. 'Shut your eyes, senora, and
trust to your mule,' I recommended.
"She did so, and with her pallor and her wasted thin face she looked
deathlike. At a turn of the path, where a great crag of purple porphyry
closes the view of the lowlands, I saw her open her eyes. I rode just
behind her holding the little girl with my right arm. 'The child is all
right,' I cried encouragingly.
"'Yes,' she answered faintly; and then, to my intense terror, I saw her
stand up on the footrest, staring horribly, and throw herself forward into
the chasm on our right.
"I cannot describe to you the sudden and abject fear that came over me at
that dreadful sight. It was a dread of the abyss, the dread of the crags
which seemed to nod upon me. My head swam. I pressed the child to my side
and sat my horse as still as a statue. I was speechless and cold all over.
Her mule staggered, sidling close to the rock, and then went on. My horse
only pricked up his ears with a slight snort. My heart stood still, and
from the depths of the precipice the stones rattling in the bed of the
furious stream made me almost insane with their sound.
"Next moment we were round the turn and on a broad and grassy slope. And
then I yelled. My men came running back to me in great alarm. It seems
that at first I did nothing but shout, 'She has given the child into my
hands! She has given the child into my hands!' The escort thought I had
General Santierra ceased and got up from the table. "And that is all,
senores," he concluded, with a courteous glance at his rising guests.
"But what became of the child, General?" we asked.
"Ah, the child, the child."
He walked to one of the windows opening on his beautiful garden, the
refuge of his old days. Its fame was great in the land. Keeping us back
with a raised arm, he called out, "Erminia, Erminia!" and waited. Then his
cautioning arm dropped, and we crowded to the windows.
From a clump of trees a woman had come upon the broad walk bordered with
flowers. We could hear the rustle of her starched petticoats and observed
the ample spread of her old-fashioned black silk skirt. She looked up, and
seeing all these eyes staring at her, stopped, frowned, smiled, shook her
finger at the General, who was laughing boisterously, and drawing the
black lace on her head so as to partly conceal her haughty profile, passed
out of our sight, walking with stiff dignity.
"You have beheld the guardian angel of the old man—and her to whom
you owe all that is seemly and comfortable in my hospitality. Somehow,
senores, though the flame of love has been kindled early in my breast, I
have never married. And because of that perhaps the sparks of the sacred
fire are not yet extinct here." He struck his broad chest. "Still alive,
still alive," he said, with serio-comic emphasis. "But I shall not marry
now. She is General Santierra's adopted daughter and heiress."
One of our fellow-guests, a young naval officer, described her afterwards
as a "short, stout, old girl of forty or thereabouts." We had all noticed
that her hair was turning grey, and that she had very fine black eyes.
"And," General Santierra continued, "neither would she ever hear of
marrying any one. A real calamity! Good, patient, devoted to the old man.
A simple soul. But I would not advise any of you to ask for her hand, for
if she took yours into hers it would be only to crush your bones. Ah! she
does not jest on that subject. And she is the own daughter of her father,
the strong man who perished through his own strength: the strength of his
body, of his simplicity—of his love!"