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 soul.
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 the key.
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
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
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
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 naïve 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 fate.
“Then go at once and get the
key from the adjutant,” said Lieutenant Santierra.
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, yelling faces.
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.