3/21/15

The Legend of the Sword

A STRANGE STORY is told of the Spanish-American War, of a sort that sounds like the echo of some elder epic: of how an active Yankee, pursuing the enemy, came at last to a forgotten Spanish station on an island and felt as if he had intruded on the presence of a ghost. For he found in a house hung with ragged Cordova leather and old gold tapestries, a Spaniard as out of time as Don Quixote, who had no weapon but an ancient sword. This he declared his family had kept bright and sharp since the days of Cortes: and it may be imagined with what a smile the American regarded it, standing spick and span with his Sam Browne belt and his new service revolver.

His amusement was naturally increased when he found, moored close by, the gilded skeleton of an old galley. When the Spanish spectre sprang on board, brandishing his useless weapon, and his captor followed, the whole parted amidships and the two were left clinging to a spar. And here (says the legend) the story took a strange turn: for they floated far on this rude raft together: and were ultimately cast up on a desert island.

The shelving shores if the island were covered with a jungle of rush and tall grasses; which it was necessary to clear away, both to make space for a hut and to plait mats or curtains for it. With an activity rather surprising in one so slow and old-fashioned, the Spaniard drew his sword and began to use it in the manner of a scythe. The other asked if he could assist.

“This, as you say, is a rude and antiquated tool,” replied the swordsman, “and your own is a weapon of precision and promptitude. If, therefore, you (with your unerring aim) will condescend to shoot off each blade of grass, at one time, who can doubt that the task will be more rapidly accomplished?”
The face of the Iberian, under the closest scrutiny, seemed full of gravity and even gloom: and the work continued in silence. In spite of his earthly toils, however, the Hidalgo contrived to remain reasonably neat and spruce: and the puzzle was partially solved one morning when the American, rising early, found his comrade shaving himself with the sword, which that foolish family legend had kept particularly keen.

“A man with no earthly possessions but an old iron blade,” said the Spaniard apologetically, “must shave himself as best he can. But you, equipped as you are with every luxury of silence, will have no difficulty in shooting off your whiskers with a pistol.”

So far from profiting by this graceful felicitation, the modern traveler seemed for a moment a little ruffled or put out: then he said abruptly, unslinging his revolver, “Well, I guess I can’t eat my whiskers, anyhow; and this little toy may be more use in getting breakfast.”

And blazing away rapidly and with admirable aim, he brought down five birds and emptied his revolver.

“Let me assure you, said the other courteously, “that you have provided the materials for more than one elegant repast. Only after that, you ammunition being exhausted, shall we have to fall back on a clumsy trick of mine, of spiking the fish on a sword.”

“You can spike me now, I suppose, as well as the fish,” said the other bitterly. “We seem to have sunk back into a state of barbarism.”

“We have sunk into a state,” said the Spaniard, nodding gravely, “in which we can get anything we want with what have got already.”

“But,” cried the American, “that is the end of all Progress!”

“I wonder whether it matters much which end?” said the other.

~G.K. Chesterton