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The Bridge of Calahorra

The bridge that the Moors built over the Guadalquivir straggles across the water with easy arches. Somewhat dilapidated and very beautiful, it has not the strenuous look of such things in England, and the mere sight of it fills you with comfort. The clustered houses, with an added softness from the light burning mellow on their roofs and on their white walls, increase the happy impression that the world is not necessarily hurried and toilful. And the town, separated from the river by no formal embankment, lounges at the water's edge like a giant, prone on the grass and lazy, stretching his limbs after the mid-day sleep.

There is no precipitation in such a place as Cordova; life is quite long enough for all that it is really needful to do; to him who waits come all things, and a little waiting more or less can be of no great consequence. Let everything be taken very leisurely, for there is ample time. Yet in other parts of Andalusia they say the Cordovese are the greatest liars and the biggest thieves in Spain, which points to considerable industry. The traveller, hearing this, will doubtless ask what business has the pot to call the kettle black; and it is true that the standard of veracity throughout the country is by no means high. But this can scarcely be termed a vice, for the Andalusians see in it nothing discreditable, and it can be proved as exactly as a proposition of Euclid that vice and virtue are solely matters of opinion. In Southern Spain bosom friends lie to one another with complete freedom; no man would take his wife's word, but would believe only what he thought true, and think no worse of her when he caught her fibbing. Mendacity is a thing so perfectly understood that no one is abashed by detection. In England most men equivocate and nearly all women, but they are ashamed to be discovered; they blush and stammer and hesitate, or fly into a passion; the wiser Spaniard laughs, shrugging his shoulders, and utters a dozen rapid falsehoods to make up for the first. It is always said that a good liar needs an excellent memory, but he wants more qualities than that--unblushing countenance, the readiest wit, a manner to beget confidence. In fact it is so difficult to lie systematically and well that the ardour of the Andalusians in that pursuit can be ascribed only to an innate characteristic. Their imaginations, indeed, are so exuberant that the bald fact is to them grotesque and painful. They are like writers in love with words for their own sake, who cannot make the plainest statement without a gay parade of epithet and metaphor. They embroider and decorate, they colour and enhance the trivial details of circumstance. They must see themselves perpetually in an attitude; they must never fail to be effective. They lie for art's sake, without reason or rhyme, from mere devilry, often when it can only harm them. Mendacity then becomes an intellectual exercise, such as the poet's sonneteering to an imaginary lady-love.

But the Cordovan very naturally holds himself in no such unflattering estimation. The motto of his town avers that he is a warlike person and a wise one:

Cordoba, casa de guerrera gente Y de sabiduria clara fuente!

And the history thereof, with its University and its Khalifs, bears him out. Art and science flourished there when the rest of Europe was enveloped in mediŠval darkness: when our Saxon ancestors lived in dirty hovels, barbaric brutes who knew only how to kill, to eat, and to propagate their species, the Moors of Cordova cultivated all the elegancies of life from verse-making to cleanliness.

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I was standing on the bridge. The river flowed tortuously through the fertile plain, broad and shallow, and in it the blue sky and the white houses of the city were brightly mirrored. In the distance, like a vapour of amethyst, rose the mountains; while at my feet, in mid-stream, there were two mills which might have been untouched since Moorish days. There had been no rain for months, the water stood very low, and here and there were little islands of dry yellow sand, on which grew reeds and sedge. In such a spot might easily have wandered the half-naked fisherman of the oriental tale, bewailing in melodious verse the hardness of his lot; since to his net came no fish, seeking a broken pot or a piece of iron wherewith to buy himself a dinner. There might he find a ring half-buried in the sand, which, when he rubbed to see if it were silver, a smoke would surely rise from the water, increasing till the light of day was obscured; and half dead with fear, he would perceive at last a gigantic body towering above him, and a voice more terrible than the thunder of Allah, crying: 'What wishest thou from thy slave, O king? Know that I am of the Jin, and Suleyman, whose name be exalted, enslaved me to the ring that thou hast found.'

In Cordova recollections of the Arabian Nights haunt you till the commonest sights assume a fantastic character, and the frankly impossible becomes mere matter of fact. You wonder whether your life is real or whether you have somehow reverted to the days when Scheherazade, with her singular air of veracity, recited such enthralling stories to her lord as to save her own life and that of many other maidens. I looked along the river and saw three slender trees bending over it, reflecting in the placid water their leafless branches, and under them knelt three women washing clothes. Were they three beautiful princesses whose fathers had been killed, and they expelled from their kingdom and thus reduced to menial occupations? Who knows? Indeed, I thought it very probable, for so many royal persons have come down in the world of late; but I did not approach them, since king's daughters under these circumstances have often lost one eye, and their morals are nearly always of the worst description.


William Somerset Maugham