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One More Martyr by Gouverneur Morris

 

A little one-act play, sufficiently dramatic, is revived from time to time among the Latin races for long runs. The play is of simplified, classic construction. But the principal part is variously interpreted by different actors. The minor characters, a priest and an officer, have no great latitude for individuality, while the work of the chorus comes as near mathematics as anything human can. The play is a passion play. No actor has ever played the principal part more than once. And the play differs from other plays in this, also, that there are not even traditional lines for the principal character to speak. He may say whatever comes into his head. He may say nothing. He may play his part with reticence or melodramatically. It does not matter. His is what actors call a fat part; it cannot be spoiled. And at the climax and curtain he may sink slowly to the ground or fall upon his back or upon his face. It does not matter. Once, before falling, a man leaped so violently upward and forward as to break the ropes with which his legs and arms were bound. Those who saw this performance cannot speak of it to this day without a shudder.

Under the management of General Weyler in Cuba this little play enjoyed, perhaps, its longest continuous run. Curiously enough, there were absolutely no profits to be divided at the end. But, then, think of the expense of production! Why, to enable the General to stage that play for so many nights—I mean sunrises—required the employment of several hundred thousand men and actually bankrupted a nation. In this world one must pay like the devil for one's fancies. Think what Weyler paid: all the money that his country could beg or borrow; then his own reputation as a soldier, as a statesman, and as a man; ending with a series of monstrous mortgages on his own soul. For which, when it is finally sold at auction, there will not be bid so much as one breath of garlic.

When Juan D'Acosta's mother heard that her younger son Manual had been taken prisoner by the Spaniards and was to be shot the following morning at sunrise she sat for an hour motionless, staring at the floor. Juan, as is, or was, well known, had died gloriously, a cigarette between his lips, after inestimable, if secret, services to Cuba. Nor had his execution been entirely a martyrdom. He was shot for a spy. He was a spy, and a very daring, clever, and self-effacing one. He had been caught within the Spanish lines with incriminating papers upon his person. And before they could secure him he had had the eternal satisfaction of ripping open two Spaniards with his knife so that they died. He was executed without a trial. His mother went out with others of his relatives to see him die. The memory of his dying had remained with her to comfort her for the fact of it. She had seen him, calm, and in her eyes very beautiful, standing in strong relief with his back to a white wall, a cigarette between his lips. There had not been the slightest bravado in his perfect self-possession. It had been that of a gentleman, which he was not by birth, and a man of the world; quiet, retiring and attentive. He had looked so courteous, so kind-hearted, so pure! He had spoken—on either side of his cigarette—for some moments to the priest, apologizing through him to God for whatever spots there may have been upon his soul. Then his eyes had sought his mother's among the spectators and remained steadfastly upon them, smiling, until the exactions of his part demanded that he face more to the front and look into the muzzles of the Mausers. The fire of his cigarette having burned too close to his lips for comfort, and his hands being tied, he spat the butt out of his mouth and allowed the last taste of smoke which he was to enjoy on earth to curl slowly off through his nostrils. Then, for it was evident that the edge of the sun would show presently above the rim of the world, he had drawn a breath or two of the fresh morning air and had spoken his last words in a clear, controlled voice.

"Whenever one of us dies," he had said, "it strengthens the cause of liberty instead of weakening it. I am so sure of this that I would like to come to life after being shot, so that I might be taken and shot again and again and again. You, my friends, are about to fire for Cuba, not against her. Therefore, I thank you. I think that is all. Christ receive me."

The impact of the volley had flattened him backward against the wall with shocking violence, but he had remained on his feet for an appreciable interval of time and had then sunk slowly to his knees and had fallen quietly forward upon his face.

So her older boy had died, honoring himself and his country, after serving his country only. The memory of his life, deeds and dying was a comfort to her. And when she learned that Manuel, too, was to be shot, and sat staring at the floor, it was not entirely of Manuel that she was thinking. She did not love Manuel as she had loved Juan. He had not been a comfort to her in any way. He had been a sneaking, cowardly child; he had grown into a vicious and cowardly young man. He was a patriot because he was afraid not to be; he had enlisted in the Cuban army because he was afraid not to. He had even participated in skirmishes, sweating with fear and discharging his rifle with his eyes closed. But he had been clever enough to conceal his white feathers, and he could talk in a modest, purposeful way, just like a genuine hero. He was to be shot, not because he was himself, but because he was Juan's brother. The Spaniards feared the whole family as a man fears a hornet's nest in the eaves and, because one hornet has stung him, wages exterminating war upon all hornets. In Manuel's case, however, there was a trial, short and unpleasant. The man was on his knees half the time, blubbering, abjuring, perspiring, and begging for mercy; swearing on his honor to betray his country wherever and whenever possible; to fight against her, to spy within her defenses and plans—anything, everything!

His judges were not impressed. They believed him to be acting. He was one of the D'Acostas; Juan's brother, Ferdinand's son—a hornet. Not the same type of hornet, but for that very reason, perhaps, the more to be feared. "When he finds," said the colonel who presided, "that he is to be shot beyond peradventure he will turn stoic like the others, you'll see. Even now he is probably laughing at us for being moved by his blubberings and entreaties. He wants to get away from us at any price. That's all. He wants a chance to sting us again. And that chance he will not get."

Oddly enough, the coward did turn stoic the moment he was formally condemned. But it was physical exhaustion as much as anything else; a sudden numbing of the senses, a kind of hideous hypnotism upon him by the idea of death. It lasted the better part of an hour. Then, alone in his cell, he hurled himself against the walls, screaming, or cowered upon the stone floor, pooling it with tears, sobbing horribly with his whole body, going now and again into convulsions of nausea. These actions were attributed by his guard to demoniacal rage, but not to fear. He thus fought blindly against the unfightable until about four in the afternoon, when exhaustion once more put a quietus upon him. It was then that his mother, having taken counsel at last with her patriot soul, visited him.

She had succeeded, not without difficulty, in gaining permission. It was not every mother who could manage a last interview with a condemned son. But she had bribed the colonel. She had given him in silver the savings of a lifetime.

The old woman sat down by her son and took his hand in hers. Then the door of the cell was closed upon them and locked. Manuel turned and collapsed against his mother's breast.

"It's all right, Manuel," she said in her quiet, cheerful voice. "I've seen the colonel."

Manuel looked up quickly, a glint of hope in his rodent eyes.

"What do you mean?" he said. His voice was hoarse. His mother bit her lips, for the hoarseness told her that her son had been screaming with fear. In that moment she almost hated him. But she controlled herself. She looked at him sidewise.

"The colonel tells me that you have offered to serve Spain if he will give you your life?"

This was a shrewd guess. She waited for Manuel's answer, not even hoping that it would be in the negative. She knew him through and through.

"Well," he choked, "it wouldn't do."

"That's where you are wrong, my son," she said. "The colonel, on the contrary, believes he can make use of you. He is going to let you go free."

Manuel could not believe his ears, it seemed. He kept croaking "What?" in his hoarse voice, his face brightening with each reiteration.

"But," she went on, "he does not wish this to be known to the Cubans. You see, if they knew that you had been allowed to go free it would counteract your usefulness, wouldn't it?"

"Yes—but—"

"Listen to me. Everything is to proceed as ordered and according to army regulations except one thing. The rifles which are to be fired at you will be loaded with blank cartridges. When the squad fires you must fall as if—as if you were dead. Then you will be put in a coffin and brought to me for burial. Then you will come to life. That is all."

She smiled into her son's face with a great gladness and patted his hands.

"Afterward," she said, "you will grow a beard and generally disguise yourself. It is thus that the colonel thinks he can best make use of your knowledge and cleverness. And, of course, at the first opportunity you will give the colonel the slip and once more take your place in the patriot army."

"Of course," said Manuel; "I never meant to do what I pretended I would."

"Of course not!" said his mother.

"But—"

"But what?"

"I don't see the necessity of having a mock execution. It's not nice to have a lot of blank cartridges go off in your face."

"Nice!" The old woman sprang to her feet. She shook her finger in his face. "Nice! Haven't you any shred of courage in your great, hulking body? I don't believe you'll even face blank cartridges like a man—I believe you'll scream and blubber and be a shame to us all. You disgust me!" She spat on the floor. "Here I come to tell you that you are to be spared, and you're afraid to death of the means by which you are to go free. Why, I'd stand up to blank cartridges all day without turning a hair—or to bullets, for that matter—at two hundred metres, where I knew none of those Spanish idiots could hit me except by accident. I wouldn't expect you to play the man at a real execution or at anything real, but surely you can pull yourself together enough to play the man at a mock execution. What a chance! You can leave a reputation as great as your brother's—greater, even; you could crack jokes and burst out laughing just when they go to fire—"

Then, as suddenly as she had flown into a passion, she burst into tears and flung her arms about her boy and clung to him and mothered him until in the depths of his surly, craven heart he was touched and strengthened.

"Don't be afraid for me, mother," he said. "I do not like even the blank cartridges, God forgive me; but I shall not shame you."

She kissed him again and again and laughed and cried. And when the guard opened the door and said that the time was up she patted her boy upon the cheeks and shoulders and smiled bravely into his face. Then she left him.

The execution of Manuel D'Acosta was not less inspiring to the patriotic heart than that of his brother Juan. And who knows but that it may have been as difficult an act of control for the former to face the blank cartridges as for the latter to stand up to those loaded with ball? Like Juan, Manuel stood against the wall with a cigarette between his lips. Like Juan, he sought out his mother's face among the spectators and smiled at her bravely. He did not stand so modestly, so gentlemanly as Juan had done, but with a touch of bravado, an occasional half-swaggering swing from the hips, an upward tilt of the chin.

"I told you he would turn stoic," the colonel whispered to one of the officers who had taken part in the trial. "I know these Cubans."

It was all very edifying. Like Juan, Manuel spat out his cigarette when it had burned too short. But, unlike Juan, he made no dying speech. He felt that he was still too hoarse to be effective. Instead, at the command, "Aim!" he burst out laughing, as if in derision of the well-known lack of markmanship which prevailed among the Spaniards.

He was nearly torn in two.

Those who lifted him into his coffin noticed that the expression upon his face was one of blank astonishment, as if the beyond had contained an immeasurable surprise for him.

His mother took a certain comfort from the manner of his dying, but it was the memory of her other boy that really enabled her to live out her life without going mad.