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Cadiz

I admire the strenuous tourist who sets out in the morning with his well-thumbed Baedeker to examine the curiosities of a foreign town, but I do not follow in his steps; his eagerness after knowledge, his devotion to duty, compel my respect, but excite me to no imitation. I prefer to wander in old streets at random without a guide-book, trusting that fortune will bring me across things worth seeing; and if occasionally I miss some monument that is world-famous, more often I discover some little dainty piece of architecture, some scrap of decoration, that repays me for all else I lose. And in this fashion the less pretentious beauties of a town delight me, which, if I sought under the guidance of the industrious German, would seem perhaps scarcely worth the trouble. Nor do I know that there is in Cadiz much to attract the traveller beyond the grace with which it lies along the blue sea and the unstudied charm of its gardens, streets, and market-place; the echo in the cathedral to which the gaping tripper listens with astonishment leaves me unmoved; and in the church of Santa Catalina, which contains the last work of Murillo, upon which he was engaged at his death, I am more interested in the tall stout priest, unctuous and astute, who shows me his treasure, than in the picture itself. I am relieved now and again to visit a place that has no obvious claims on my admiration; it throws me back on the peculiarities of the people, on the stray incidents of the street, on the contents of the shops.

Cadiz is said to be the gayest town in Andalusia. Spaniards have always a certain gravity; they are not very talkative, and like the English, take their pleasures a little sadly. But here lightness of heart is thought to reign supreme, and the inhabitants have not even the apparent seriousness with which the Sevillan cloaks a somewhat vacant mind. They are great theatre-goers, and as dancers, of course, have been famous since the world began. But I doubt whether Cadiz deserves its reputation, for it always seems to me a little prim. The streets are well-kept and spacious, the houses, taller than is usual in Andalusia, have almost as cared-for an appearance as those in a prosperous suburb of London; and it is only quite occasionally, when you catch a glimpse of tawny rock and of white breakwater against the blue sea, that by a reminiscence of Naples you can persuade yourself it is as immoral as they say. For, not unlike the Syren City, Cadiz lies white and cool along the bay, with gardens at the water's edge; but it has not the magic colour of its rival, it is quieter, smaller, more restful; and on the whole lacks that agreeable air of wickedness which the Italian town possesses to perfection. It is impossible to be a day in Naples without discovering that it is the most depraved city in Europe; there is something in the atmosphere which relaxes the moral fibre, and the churchwarden who keeps guard in the bosom of every Englishman falls asleep, so that you feel capable of committing far more than the seven deadly sins. Of course, you don't, but still it is comfortable to have them within reach.

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I came across, while examining the wares of a vendor of antiquities, a contemporary narrative from the Spanish side of the attack made on Cadiz by Sir Francis Drake when he set out to singe the beard of Philip II.; and this induced me afterwards to look into the English story. It is far from me to wish to inform the reader, but the account is not undiverting, and shows, besides, a frame of mind which the Anglo-Saxon has not ceased to cultivate. 'But the Almighty God,' says the historian, 'knowing and seeing his (the Spanish king's) wicked intent to punish, molest, and trouble His little flock, the children of Israel, hath raised up a faithful Moses for the defence of His chosen, and will not suffer His people utterly to fall into the hands of their enemies.' Drake set sail from Plymouth with four of her Majesty's ships, two pinnaces, and some twenty merchantmen. A vessel was sent after, charging him not to show hostilities, but the messenger, owing to contrary winds, could never come near the admiral, and vastly to the annoyance of the Virgin Queen, as she solemnly assured the ambassadors of foreign powers, had to sail home. Under the circumstances it was, perhaps, hardly discreet of her to take so large a share of the booty.

Faithful Moses arrived in Cadiz, spreading horrid consternation, and the Spanish pamphlet shows very vividly the confusion of the enemy. It appears that, had he boldly landed, he might have sacked the town, but he imagined the preparations much greater than they were. However, he was not idle. 'The same night our general, having, by God's good favour and sufferance, opportunity to punish the enemy of God's true gospel and our daily adversary, and further willing to discharge his expected duty towards God, his peace and country, began to sink and fire divers of their ships.'

The English fleet burned thirty sail of great burden, and captured vast quantities of the bread, wheat, wine and oil which had been prepared for the descent upon England. Sir Francis Drake himself remarks that 'the sight of the terrible fires were to us very pleasant, and mitigated the burden of our continual travail, wherein we were busied for two nights and one day, in discharging, firing, and lading of provisions.'

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It is a curious thing to see entirely deserted a place of entertainment, where great numbers of people are in the habit of assembling. A theatre by day, without a soul in it, gives me always a sensation of the ridiculous futility of things; and a public garden towards evening offers the same emotion. On the morrow I was starting for Africa; I watched the sunset from the quays of Cadiz, the vapours of the twilight rise and envelop the ships in greyness, and I walked by the alamadas that stretch along the bay till I came to the park. The light was rapidly failing and I found myself alone. It had quaint avenues of short palms, evidently not long planted, and between them rows of yellow iron chairs arranged with great neatness and precision. It was there that on Sunday I had seen the populace disport itself, and it was full of life then, gay and insouciant. The fair ladies drove in their carriages, and the fine gentlemen, proud of their English clothes, lounged idly. The chairs were taken by all the lesser fry, by stout mothers, dragons attendant on dark-eyed girls, and their lovers in broad hats, in all the gala array of the flamenco. There was a joyous clamour of speech and laughter; the voices of Spanish women are harsh and unrestrained; the park sparkled with colour, and the sun caught the fluttering of countless fans.

For those blithe people it seemed that there was no morrow: the present was there to be enjoyed, divine and various, and the world was full of beauty and of sunshine; merely to live was happiness enough; if there was pain or sorrow it served but to enhance the gladness. The hurrying hours for a while had ceased their journey. Life was a cup of red wine, and they were willing to drink its very dregs, a brimming cup in which there was no bitterness, but a joy more thrilling than the gods could give in all their paradise.

But now I walked alone between the even rows of chairs. The little palms were so precise, with their careful foliage, that they did not look like real trees; the flower-beds were very stiff and neat, and now and then a pine stood out, erect and formal as if it were a cardboard tree from a Noah's Ark. The scene was so artificial that it brought to my mind the setting of a pantomime. I stopped, almost expecting a thousand ballet-girls to appear from the wings, scantily clad, and go through a measure to the playing of some sudden band, and retire and come forward till the stage was filled and a great tableau formed.

But the day grew quite dim, and the vast stage remained empty. The painted scene became still more unreal, and presently the park was filled with the ghostly shapes of all the light-hearted people who had lived their hour and exhibited their youth in the empty garden. I heard the whispered compliments, and the soft laughter of the ladies; there was a peculiar little snap as gaily they closed their fans.


William Somerset Maugham