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The Court of Oranges

I went into the cathedral from the side and issuing by another door, found myself in the Court of Oranges. The setting sun touched it with warm light and overhead the sky was wonderfully blue. In Moorish times the mosque was separated from the court by no dividing-wall, so that the arrangement of pillars within was continued by the even lines of orange-trees; these are of great age and size, laden with fruit, and in their copious foliage stand with a trim self-assurance that is quite imposing.

In the centre, round a fountain into which poured water from jets at the four corners, stood a number of persons with jars of earthenware and bright copper cans. One girl held herself with the fine erectness of a Caryatid, while her jar, propped against the side, filled itself with the cold, sparkling water. A youth, some vessel in his hand, leaned over in an attitude of easy grace; and looking into her eyes, appeared to pay compliments, which she heard with superb indifference. A little boy ran up, and the girl held aside her jar while he put his mouth to the spout and drank. Then, as it overflowed, she lifted it with comely motion to her head and slowly walked away.

By now the canons had unrobed, and several strolled about the court in the sun, smoking cigarettes. The acolytes with the removal of their scarlet cassocks, were become somewhat ragged urchins playing pitch and toss with much gesture and vociferation. Two of them quarrelled fiercely because one player would not yield the halfpenny he had certainly lost, and the altercation must have ended in blows if a corpulent, elderly cleric had not indignantly reproved them, and boxed their ears. A row of tattered beggars, very well contented in the sunshine, were seated on a step, likewise smoking cigarettes, and obviously they did not consider their walk of life unduly hard.

And the thought impressed itself upon me while I lingered in that peaceful spot, that there was far more to be said for the simple pleasures of sense than northern folk would have us believe. The English have still much of that ancient puritanism which finds a vague sinfulness in the uncostly delights of sunshine, and colour, and ease of mind. It is well occasionally to leave the eager turmoil of great cities for such a place as this, where one may learn that there are other, more natural ways of living, that it is possible still to spend long days, undisturbed by restless passion, without regret or longing, content in the various show that nature offers, asking only that the sun should shine and the happy seasons run their course.

An English engineer whom I had seen at the hotel, approaching me, expressed the idea in his own graphic manner. 'Down here there are a good sight more beer and skittles in life than up in Sheffield!'

One canon especially interested me, a little thin man, bent and wrinkled, apparently of fabulous age, but still something of a dandy, for he wore his clothes with a certain air, as though half a century before, byronically, he had been quite a devil with the ladies. The silver buckle on his shoes was most elegant, and he protruded his foot as though the violet silk of his stocking gave him a discreet pleasure. To the very backbone he was an optimist, finding existence evidently so delightful that it did not even need rose-coloured spectacles. He was an amiable old man, perhaps a little narrow, but very indulgent to the follies of others. He had committed no sin himself--for many years: a suspicion of personal vanity is in itself proof of a pure and gentle mind; and as for the sins of others--they were probably not heinous, and at all events would gain forgiveness. The important thing, surely, was to be sound in dogma. The day wore on and the sun now shone only in a narrow space; and this the canon perambulated, smoking the end of a cigarette, the delectable frivolity of which contrasted pleasantly with his great age. He nodded affably to other priests as they passed, a pair of young men, and one obese old creature with white hair and an expression of comfortable self-esteem. He removed his hat with a great and courteous sweep when a lady of his acquaintance crossed his path. The priests basking in the warmth were like four great black cats. It was indeed a pleasant spot, and contentment oozed into one by every pore. The canon rolled himself another cigarette, smiling as he inhaled the first sweet whiffs; and one could not but think the sovereign herb must greatly ease the journey along the steep and narrow way which leads to Paradise. The smoke rose into the air lazily, and the old cleric paused now and again to look at it, the little smile of self-satisfaction breaking on his lips.

Up in the North, under the cold grey sky, God Almighty may be a hard taskmaster, and the Kingdom of Heaven is attained only by much endeavour; but in Cordova these things come more easily. The aged priest walks in the sun and smokes his cigarillo. Heaven is not such an inaccessible place after all. Evidently he feels that he has done his duty--with the help of Havana tobacco--in that state of life wherein it has pleased a merciful providence to place him; and St. Peter would never be so churlish as to close the golden gates in the face of an ancient canon who sauntered to them jauntily, with the fag end of a cigarette in the corner of his mouth. Let us cultivate our cabbages in the best of all possible worlds; and afterwards--Dieu pardonnera; c'est son métier.

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Three months later in the Porvenir, under the heading, 'Suicide of a Priest,' I read that one of these very canons of the Cathedral at Cordova had shot himself. A report was heard, said the journal, and the Civil Guard arriving, found the man prostrate with blood pouring from his ear, a revolver by his side. He was transported to the hospital, the sacrament administered, and he died. In his pockets they found a letter, a pawn-ticket, a woman's bracelet, and some peppermint lozenges. He was thirty-five years old. The newspaper moralised as follows: 'When even the illustrious order to which the defunct belonged is tainted with such a crime, it is well to ask whither tends the incredulity of society which finds an end to its sufferings in the barrel of a revolver. Let moralists and philosophers combat with all their might this dreadful tendency; let them make even the despairing comprehend that death is not the highest good but the passage to an unknown world where, according to Christian belief, the ill deeds of this existence are punished and the virtuous rewarded.'


William Somerset Maugham