Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Quotes: The Land of the Blessed Virgin (1905) by W. Somerset Maugham

...toreador is an unknown word, good for comic opera and persons who write novels of Spanish life and cannot be bothered to go to Spain...


The English humanity to animals is one of the best traits of a great people, and they justly thank God they are not as others are. Can anything more horrid be imagined than to kill a horse in the bull-fight, and can any decent hack ask for a better end when he is broken down, than to be driven to death in London streets or to stand for hours on cab ranks in the rain and snow of an English winter? The Spaniards are certainly cruel to animals; on the other hand, they never beat their wives nor kick their children. From the dog's point of view I would ten times sooner be English, but from the woman's - I have my doubts. Some while ago certain papers, anxious perhaps to taste the comfortable joys of self-righteousness, turned their attention to the brutality of Spaniards, and a score of journalists wrote indignantly of bull-fights. At the same time, by a singular chance, a prize-fighter was killed in London, and the Spanish papers printed long tirades against the gross, barbaric English. The two sets of writers were equally vehement, inaccurate and flowery; but what seemed most remarkable was that each side evidently felt quite unaffected horror and disgust for the proceedings of the other. Like persons of doubtful character inveighing against the vices of the age, both were so carried away by moral enthusiasm as to forget that there was anything in their own histories which made this virtuous fury a little absurd. There is really a good deal in the point of view.


There were about two hundred in the patio, and really they did not seem to have so bad a time. There was one large group gathered round a man who read a newspaper aloud; it was Monday morning, and all listened intently to the account of a bull-fight on the previous day, bursting into a little cry of surprise and admiration on hearing that the matador had been caught and tossed. Others lay by a pillar playing draughts for matches, while half a dozen more eagerly watched, giving unsolicited advice with much gesticulation. The draught-board consisted of little squares drawn on the pavement with chalk, and pieces were scraps of white and yellow paper. One man sat cross-legged by a column busily rolling cigarettes; he had piles of them by his side arranged in packets, which he sold at one penny each; it was certainly an illegal offence, because the sale of tobacco is a government monopoly, but if you cannot break the laws in prison where can you break them? Others occupied themselves by making baskets or nets. But the majority did nothing at all, standing about, sitting when they could, with the eternal cigarette between their lips; and the more energetic watched the blue smoke curl into the air. Altogether a very happy family!


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.

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