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W. H. Hudson: A mother’s plea


Anti-war essays, poems, short stories and literary excerpts

British writers on peace and war


W. H. Hudson
From Far Away and Long Ago

These pleasant adventures with Dardo on the plain were suddenly put a stop to by the war. One morning a number of persons on foot and on horseback were seen coming to us over the green plain from the shepherd’s ranch, and as they drew nearer we recognized our old Alcalde on his horse as the leader of the procession, and behind him walked Dona Nata, holding her son by the hand; then followed others on foot, and behind them all rode four old gauchos, the Alcalde’s henchmen, wearing their swords.

What matter of tremendous importance had brought this crowd to our house? The Alcalde, Don Amaro Avalos, was not only the representative of the “authorities” in our parts – police officer, petty magistrate of sorts, and several other things besides – but a grand old man in himself, and he looms large in memory among the old gaucho patriarchs in our neighbourhood. He was a big man, about six feet high, exceedingly dignified in manner, his long hair and beard of a silvery whiteness; he wore the gaucho costume with a great profusion of silver ornaments, including ponderous silver spurs weighing about four pounds, and heavy silver whip-handle. As a rule he rode on a big black horse which admirably suited his figure and the scarlet colour and silver of his costume.

On arrival Don Amaro was conducted to the drawing-room, followed by all the others; and when all were seated, including the four old gauchos wearing swords, the Alcalde addressed my parents and informed them of the object of the visit. He had received an imperative order from his superiors, he said, to take at once and send to headquarters twelve more young men as recruits for the army from his small section of the district. Now most of the young men had already been taken, or had disappeared from the neighbourhood in order to avoid service, and to make up this last twelve he had even to take boys of the age of this one [15-years-old], and Medardo would have to go. But this woman would not have her boy taken, and after spending many words in trying to convince her that she must submit he had at last, to satisfy her, consented to accompany her to her master’s house to discuss the matter again in her master and mistress’s presence.

It was a long speech, pronounced with great dignity; then, almost before it finished, the distracted mother jumped up and threw herself on her knees before my parents, and in her wild tremulous voice began crying to them, imploring them to have compassion on her and help her to save her boy from such a dreadful destiny. What would he be, she cried, a boy of his tender years dragged from his home, from his mother’s care, and thrown among a crowd of old hardened soldiers, and of evil-minded men – murderers, robbers, and criminals of all descriptions drawn from all the prisons of the land to serve in the army!

It was dreadful to see her on her knees wringing her hands, and to listen to her wild lamentable cries; and again and again while the matter was being discussed between the old Alcalde and my parents, she would break out and plead with such passion and despair in her voice and words, that all the people in the room were affected to tears. She was like some wild animal trying to save her offspring from the hunters. Never, exclaimed my mother, when the struggle was over, had she passed so painful, so terrible, an hour! And the struggle had all been in vain, and Dardo was taken from us.


The young officer, whose home was more than a day’s journey from our district, had visited the neighbourhood on a former occasion and remembered that he had relations in it; and when he broke away from the men, divining that it was their intention to murder him, he made for the old Alcalde’s house. He succeeded in keeping ahead of his pursuers until he arrived at the gate, and throwing himself from his horse and rushing into the house, and finding the old Alcalde surrounded by the women of the house, addressed him as uncle and claimed his protection. The Alcalde was not, strictly speaking, his uncle but was his mother’s first cousin. It was an awful moment: the nine armed ruffians were already standing outside, shouting to the owner of the place to give them up their prisoner, and threatening to burn down the house and kill all the inmates if he refused. The old Alcalde stood in the middle of the room, surrounded by a crowd of women and children, his own two handsome daughters, aged about twenty and twenty-two respectively, among them, fainting with terror and crying for him to save them, while the young officer on his knees implored him for the sake of his mother’s memory, and of the Mother of God and of all he held sacred, to refuse to give him up to be slaughtered.

The old man was not equal to the situation: he trembled and sobbed with anguish, and at last faltered out that he could not protect him – that he must save his own daughters and the wives and children of his neighbours who had sought refuge in his house. The men outside, hearing how the argument was going, came to the door, and finally seizing the young man by the arm led him out and made him mount his horse again and ride with them. They rode back the way they had gone for half a mile towards our house, then pulled him off his horse and cut his throat.

On the following day a mulatto boy who looked after the flock and went on errands for the Alcalde, came to me and said that if I would mount my pony and go with him he would show me something. It was not seldom this same little fellow came to me to offer to show me something, and it usually turned out to be a bird’s nest, an object which keenly interested us both. I gladly mounted my pony and followed. The broken army had ceased passing our way by now, and it was peaceful and safe once more on the great plain. We rode about a mile, and he then pulled up his horse and pointed to the turf at our feet, where I saw a great stain of blood on the short dry grass. Here, he told me, was where they had cut the young officer’s throat: the body had been taken by the Alcalde to his house, where it had been lying since the evening before, and it would be taken for burial next day to our nearest village, about eight miles distant.

The murder was the talk of the place for some days, chiefly on account of the painful facts of the case – that the old Alcalde, who was respected and even loved by everyone, should have failed in so pitiful a way to make any attempt at saving his young relation. But the mere fact that the soldiers had cut the throat of their officer surprised no one; it was a common thing in the case of a defeat in those days for the men to turn upon and murder their officers. Nor was throat-cutting a mere custom or convention: to the old soldier it was the only satisfactory way of finishing off your adversary, or prisoner of war, or your officer who had been your tyrant, on the day of defeat.

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