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Gaspar Ruiz by Conrad, Joseph - Chapter 1

GASPAR RUIZ

By Joseph Conrad



I

A REVOLUTIONARY war raises many strange characters out of the
obscurity which is the common lot of humble lives in an undisturbed
state of society.

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 in books.

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 humble fortunes.

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, Estaban!"

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 officer.

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 life.