One More Martyr
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
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?"
"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
"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
"Of course," said Manuel; "I never meant to do what I pretended I
"Of course not!" said his mother.
"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
"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
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.