Story type: Literature
History wears a double face,–one face fancy, the other fact. The worst of it is that we cannot always tell which face is turned towards us, and we mistake one for the other far oftener than we know. In truth, fancy works in among the facts of the most sober history, while in that primitive form of history known as legend or tradition fancy has much the best of it, though it may often be founded upon fact. In the present tale we have to do with legend pure and simple, with hardly a thread of fact to give substance to its web.
There was a certain Grecian king of Cadiz whose daughter was of such peerless beauty that her hand was sought in marriage by many of the other kings of Andalusia. In those days “that country was ruled by several kings, each having estates not extending over more than one or two cities.” What to do with the crowd of suitors the father was puzzled to decide. Had a single one asked for his daughter’s hand he might have settled it with a word, but among so many, equally brave, handsome, and distinguished, answer was not so easy; and the worthy king of Cadiz was sorely troubled and perplexed.
Luckily for him, the fair damsel was as wise as she was beautiful, and took the matter into her own hands, making an announcement that quickly cut down the number of her admirers. She said that she would have no husband but one who could prove himself “a wise king.” In our days, when every king and nearly every man thinks himself wise, such a decision would not have deterred suitors, and she would have been compelled, in the end, to choose among the few unwise. But wisdom, in those times of fable and necromancy, had a wider meaning than we give it. A wise king was one who had control of the powers of earth and air, who could call the genii to his aid by incantations, and perform supernatural deeds. Hence it was that the suitors fell off from the maiden like leaves from an autumn bough, leaving but two who deemed themselves fitting aspirants to her hand.
To test the wisdom of these two she gave them the following tasks: One was bidden to construct on the mainland an aqueduct and a water-wheel to bring water from the mountains into Cadiz. The other was to produce a talisman which should save the island of Cadiz from invasion by Berbers or any other of the fierce tribes of Africa, by whom it was frequently threatened.
“The one of you,” said the princess, “who first and best performs his task, shall win my hand by his work.”
The two suitors were warmly in love with the beautiful maiden, and both ardently entered upon their duties. The first to get to work was the aqueduct builder, whose task called for hard labor rather than magical aid. Cadiz stands on a long, narrow peninsula, opposite which, on the mainland, the king built a hydraulic machine, to which the water was brought by pipes or canals from springs in a nearby mountain. This stream of cool, refreshing water poured upon a wheel, by which it was driven into an aqueduct crossing the bay into Cadiz.
Here comes the fact behind the legend. Such an aqueduct stood long in evidence, and as late as the eighteenth century traces of it could be seen. We have an account of it by the Arab writer, Al Makkari. “It consisted,” he says, “of a long line of arches, and the way it was done was this: whenever they came to high ground or to a mountain they cut a passage through it; when the ground was lower, they built a bridge over arches; if they met with a porous soil, they laid a bed of gravel for the passage of the water; when the building reached the sea-shore, the water was made to pass underground, and in this way it reached Cadiz.” So it was built, and “wise” was the king who built it, even if he did not call upon the genii for assistance.
The other king could not perform his labor so simply. He had a talisman to construct, so powerful that it would keep out of Spain those fierce African tribes whose boats swept the seas. What talisman could he produce that would be proof against ships and swords? The king thought much and deeply, and then went diligently to work. On the border of the strait that lay between Spain and Africa he built a lofty marble column, a square, white shaft based on a solid foundation. On its summit he erected a colossal statue of iron and copper, melted and cast into the human form. The figure was that of a Berber, like whom it wore a full and flowing beard, while a tuft of hair hung over its forehead in Berber fashion. The dress was that of the African tribes. The extended right arm of the figure pointed across the strait towards the opposite shores. In its hand were a padlock and keys. Though it spoke not, it seemed to say, “No one must pass this way.” It bore the aspect of a Berber captive, chained to the tower’s top, and warning his brethren to keep away from Spain.
Rapidly wrought the rival kings, each seeking to finish his work the first. In this the aqueduct builder succeeded. The water began to flow, the wheel to revolve, and the refreshing liquid to pour into the public fountains of Cadiz. The multitude were overjoyed as the glad torrent flowed into their streets, and hailed with loud acclamations the successful builder.
The sound of the people’s shouts of joy reached the ears of the statue builder as he was putting the last touches to his great work of art and magic. Despair filled his heart. Despite his labors, his rival had won the prize. In bitterness of spirit he threw himself from the top of the column and was dashed to pieces at its foot. “By which means,” says the chronicle, “the other prince, freed from his rival, became the master of the lady, of the wheel, and of the charm.”
The talisman was really a watch-tower, from which the news of an African invasion could be signalled through the land. In this cold age we can give its builder credit for no higher magic than that of wisdom and vigilance.