The Shaving of Shagpat, by George Meredith

The Wiles of Rabesqurat

Now, when Noorna bin Noorka had made an end of her narration, she folded her hands and was mute awhile; and to the ear of Shibli Bagarag it seemed as if a sweet instrument had on a sudden ceased luting. So, as he leaned, listening for her voice to recommence, she said quickly, ‘See yonder fire on the mountain’s height!’

He looked and saw a great light on the summit of a lofty mountain before them.

Then said she, ‘That is Aklis! and it is ablaze, knowing a visitant near. Tighten now the hairs of Garraveen about thy wrist; touch thy lips with the waters of Paravid; hold before thee the Lily, and make ready to enter the mountain. Lo, my betrothed, thou art in possession of the three means that melt opposition, and the fault is thine if thou fail.’

He did as she directed; and they were taken on a tide and advanced rapidly to the mountain, so that the waters smacked and crackled beneath the shell, covering it with silver showering arches of glittering spray. Then the fair beams of the moon became obscured, and the twain reddened with the reflection of the fire, and the billows waxed like riotous flames; and presently the shell rose upon the peak of many waves swollen to one, and looking below, they saw in the scarlet abyss of waters at their feet a monstrous fish, with open jaws and one baleful eye; and the fish was lengthy as a caravan winding through the desert, and covered with fiery scales. Shibli Bagarag heard the voice of Noorna shriek affrightedly, ‘Karaz!’ and as they were sliding on the down slope, she stood upright in the shell, pronouncing rapidly some words in magic; and the shell closed upon them both, pressing them together, and writing darkness on their very eyeballs. So, while they were thus, they felt themselves gulped in, and borne forward with terrible swiftness, they knew not where, like one that hath a dream of sinking; and outside the shell a rushing, gurgling noise, and a noise as of shouting multitudes, and muffled multitudes muttering complaints and yells and querulous cries, told them they were yet speeding through the body of the depths in the belly of the fish. Then there came a shock, and the shell was struck with light, and they were sensible of stillness without motion. Then a blow on the shell shivered it to fragments, and they were blinded with seas of brilliancy on all sides from lamps and tapers and crystals, cornelians and gems of fiery lustre, liquid lights and flashing mirrors, and eyes of crowding damsels, bright ones. So, when they had risen, and could bear to gaze on the insufferable splendour, they saw sitting on a throne of coral and surrounded by slaves with scimitars, a fair Queen, with black eyes, kindlers of storms, torches in the tempest, and with floating tresses, crowned with a circlet of green-spiked precious stones and masses of crimson weed with flaps of pearl; and she was robed with a robe of amber, and had saffron sandals, loose silvery-silken trousers tied in at the ankle, the ankle white as silver; wonderful was the quivering of rays from the jewels upon her when she but moved a finger! Now, as they stood with their hands across their brows, she cried out, ‘O ye traversers of my sea! how is this, that I am made to thank Karaz for a sight of ye?’

And Noorna bin Noorka answered, ‘Surely, O Queen Rabesqurat, the haven of our voyage was Aklis, and we feared delay, seeing the fire of the mountain ablaze with expectations of us.’

Then the Queen cried angrily, ”Tis well thou hadst wit to close the shell, O Noorna, or there would have been delay indeed. Say, is not the road to Aklis through my palace? And it is the road thousands travel.’

So Noorna bin Noorka said, ‘O Queen, this do they; but are they of them that reach Aklis?’

And the Queen cried violently, purpling with passion, ‘This to me! when I helped ye to the plucking of the Lily?’

Now, the Queen muttered an imprecation, and called the name ‘Abarak!’ and lo, a door opened in one of the pillars of jasper leading from the throne, and there came forth a little man, humped, with legs like bows, and arms reaching to his feet; in his hand a net weighted with leaden weights. So the Queen levelled her finger at Noorna, and he spun the net above her head, and dropped it on her shoulder, and dragged her with him to the pillar. When Shibli Bagarag saw that, the world darkened to him, and he rushed upon Abarak; but Noorna called swiftly in his ear, ‘Wait! wait! Thou by thy spells art stronger than all here save Abarak. Be true! Remember the seventh pillar!’ Then, with a spurn from the hand of Abarak, the youth fell back senseless at the feet of the Queen.

Now, with the return of consciousness his hearing was bewitched with strange delicious melodies, the touch of stringed instruments, and others breathed into softly as by the breath of love, delicate, tender, alive with enamoured bashfulness. Surely, the soul that heard them dissolved like a sweet in the goblet, mingling with so much ecstasy of sound; and those melodies filling the white cave of the ear were even at once to drown the soul in delightfulness and buoy it with bliss, as a heavy-leaved flower is withered and refreshed by sun and dews. Surely, the youth ceased not to listen, and oblivion of cares and aught other in this life, save that hidden luting and piping, pillowed his drowsy head. At last there was a pause, and it seemed every maze of music had been wandered through. Opening his eyes hurriedly, as with the loss of the music his own breath had gone likewise, he beheld a garden golden with the light of lamps hung profusely from branches and twigs of trees by the glowing cheeks of fruits, apple and grape, pomegranate and quince; and he was reclining on a bank piled with purple cushions, his limbs clad in the richest figured silks, fringed like the ends of clouds round the sun, with amber fringes. He started up, striving to recall the confused memory of his adventures and what evil had befallen him, and he would have struggled with the vision of these glories, but it mastered him with the strength of a potent drug, so that the very name of his betrothed was forgotten by him, and he knew not whither he would, or the thing he wished for. Now, when he had risen from the soft green bank that was his couch, lo, at his feet a damsel weeping! So he lifted her by the hand, and she arose and looked at him, and began plaining of love and its tyrannies, softening him, already softened. Then said she, ‘What I suffer there is another, lovelier than I, suffering; thou the cause of it, O cruel youth!’

He said, ‘How, O damsel? what of my cruelty? Surely, I know nothing of it.’

But she exclaimed, ‘Ah, worse to feign forgetfulness!’

Now, he was bewildered at the words of the damsel, and followed her leading till they entered a dell in the garden canopied with foliage, and beyond it a green rise, and on the rise a throne. So he looked earnestly, and beheld thereon Queen Rabesqurat, she sobbing, her dark hair pouring in streams from the crown of her head. Seeing him, she cleared her eyes, and advanced to meet him timidly and with hesitating steps; but he shrank from her, and the Queen shrieked with grief, crying, ‘Is there in this cold heart no relenting?’

Then she said to him winningly, and in a low voice, ‘O youth, my husband, to whom I am a bride!’

He marvelled, saying, ‘This is a game, for indeed I am no husband, neither have I a bride . . . yet have I confused memory of some betrothal . . . ’

Thereupon she cried, ‘Said I not so? and I the betrothed.’

Still he exclaimed, ‘I cannot think it! Wullahy, it were a wonder!’

So she said, ‘Consider how a poor youth of excellent proportions came to a flourishing Court before one, a widowed Queen, and she cast eyes of love on him, and gave him rule over her and all that was hers when he had achieved a task, and they were wedded. Oh, the bliss of it! Knit together with bond and a writing; and these were the dominions, I the Queen, woe’s me! — thou the youth!’

Now, he was roiled by the enchantments of the Queen, caught in the snare of her beguilings; and he let her lead him to a seat beside her on the throne, and sat there awhile in the midst of feastings, mazed, thinking, ‘What life have I lived before this, if the matter be as I behold?’ thinking, ”Tis true I have had visions of a widowed queen, and I a poor youth that came to her court, and espoused her, sitting in the vacant seat beside her, ruling a realm; but it was a dream, a dream — yet, wah! here is she, here am I, yonder my dominions!’ Then he thought, ‘I will solve it!’ So, on a sudden he said to her beside him, ‘O Queen, sovereign of hearts! enlighten me as to a perplexity.’

She answered, ‘The voice of my lord is music in the ear of the bride.’

Then said he, in the tone of one doubting realities, ‘O fair Queen, is there truly now such a one as Shagpat in the world?’

She laughed at his speech and the puzzled appearance of his visage, replying, ‘Surely there liveth one, Shagpat by name in the world; strange is the history of him, his friends, and enemies; and it would bear recital.’

Then he said, ‘And one, the daughter of a Vizier, Vizier to the King in the City of Shagpat?’

Thereat, she shook her head, saying, ‘I know nought of that one.’

Now, Shibli Bagarag was mindful of his thwackings; and in this the wisdom of Noorna, is manifest, that the sting of them yet chased away doubts of illusion regarding their having been, as the poet says,

If thou wouldst fix remembrance — thwack!

’Tis that oblivion controls;

I care not if’t be on the back,

Or on the soles.

He thought, ‘Wah! yet feel I the thong, and the hiss of it as of the serpent in the descent, and the smack of it as the mouth of satisfaction in its contact with tender regions. This, wullahy! was no dream.’ Nevertheless, he was ashamed to allude thereto before the Queen, and he said, ‘O my mistress, another question, one only! This Shagpat — is he shaved?’

She said, ‘Clean shorn!’

Quoth he, astonished, grief-stricken, with drawn lips, ‘By which hand, chosen above men?’

And she exclaimed, ‘O thou witty one that feignest not to know! Wullahy! by this hand of thine, O my lord and king, daring that it is; dexterous! surely so! And the shaving of Shagpat was the task achieved — I the dower of it, and the rich reward.’

Now, he was meshed yet deeper in the net of her subtleties, and by her calling him ‘lord and king’; and she gave a signal for fresh entertainments, exhausting the resources of her art, the mines of her wealth, to fascinate him. Ravishments of design and taste were on every side, and he was in the lap of abundance, beguiled by magic, caressed by beauty and a Queen. Marvel not that he was dazzled, and imagined himself already come to the great things foretold of him by the readers of planets and the casters of nativities in Shiraz. He assisted in beguiling himself, trusting wilfully to the two witnesses of things visible; as is declared by him of wise sayings:

There is in every wizard-net a hole,

So the entangler first must blind the soul.

And it is again said by that same teacher:

Ye that the inner spirit’s sight would seal,

Nought credit but what outward orbs reveal.

And the soul of Shibli Bagarag was blinded by Rabesqurat in the depths of the Enchanted Sea. She sang to him, luting deliriously; and he was intoxicated with the blissfulness of his fortune, and took a lute and sang to her love-verses in praise of her, rhyming his rapture. Then they handed the goblet to each other, and drank till they were on fire with the joy of things, and life blushed beauteousness. Surely, Rabesqurat was becoming forgetful of her arts through the strength of those draughts, till her eye marked the Lily by his side, which he grasped constantly, the bright flower, and she started and said, ‘One grant, O my King, my husband!’

So he said courteously, ‘All grants are granted to the lovely, the fascinating; and their grief will be lack of aught to ask for?’

Then said she, ‘O my husband, my King, I am jealous of that silly flower: laugh at my weakness, but fling it from thee.’

Now, he was about to cast it from him, when a vanity possessed his mind, and he exclaimed, ‘See first the thing I will do, a wonder.’

She cried, ‘No wonders, my life! I am sated with them.’

And he said, ‘I am oblivious, O Queen, of how I came by this flower and this phial; but thou shalt hear a thing beyond the power of common magic, and see that I am something.’

Now, she plucked at him to abstain from his action, but he held the phial to the flower. She signed imperiously to some slaves to stay his right wrist, and they seized on it; but not all of them together could withhold him from dropping a drop into the petals of the flower, and lo, the Lily spake, a voice from it like the voice of Noorna, saying, ‘Remember the Seventh Pillar.’ Thereat, he lifted his eyes to his brows and frowned back memory to his aid, and the scene of Karaz, Rabesqurat, Abarak, and his betrothed was present to him. So perceiving that, the Queen delayed not while he grasped the phial to take in her hands some water from a basin near, and flung it over him, crying, ‘Oblivion!’ And while his mind was straining to bring back images of what had happened, he fell forward once more at the feet of Rabesqurat, senseless as a stone falls; such was the force of her enchantments.

Now, when he awoke the second time he was in the bosom of darkness, and the Lily gone from his hand; so he lifted the phial to make certain of that, and groped about till he came to what seemed an urn to the touch, and into this he dropped a drop, and asked for the Lily; and a voice said, ‘I caught a light from it in passing.’ And he came in the darkness to a tree, and a bejewelled bank, and other urns, and swinging lamps without light, and a running water, and a grassy bank, and flowers, and a silver seat, sprinkling each; and they said all in answer to his question of the Lily, ‘I caught a light from it in passing.’ At the last he stumbled upon the steps of a palace, and ascended them, endowing the steps with speech as he went, and they said, ‘The light of it went over us.’ He groped at the porch of the palace, and gave the door a voice, and it opened on jasper hinges, shrieking, ‘The light of it went through me.’ Then he entered a spacious hall, scattering drops, and voices exclaimed, ‘We glow with the light of it.’ He passed, groping his way through other halls and dusk chambers, scattering drops, and as he advanced the voices increased in the fervour of their replies, saying sequently: ‘We blush with the light of it; We beam with the light of it; We burn with the light of it.’ So, presently he found himself in a long low room, sombrely lit, roofed with crystals; and in a corner of the room, lo! a damsel on a couch of purple, she white as silver, spreading radiance. Of such lustrous beauty was she that beside her, the Princess Goorelka as Shibli Bagarag first beheld her, would have paled like a morning moon; even Noorna had waned as Both a flower in fierce heat; and the Queen of Enchantments was but the sun behind a sand-storm, in comparison with that effulgent damsel on the length of the purple couch. Well for him he wilt of the magic which floated through that palace; as is said,

Tempted by extremes,

The soul is most secure;

Too vivid loveliness blinds with its beams,

And eyes turned inward perceive the lure.

Pulling down his turban hastily, he stepped on tiptoe to within arm’s reach of her, and, looking another way, inclined over her soft vermeil mouth the phial slowly till it brimmed the neck, and dropped a drop of Paravid between the bow of those sweet lips. Still not daring to gaze on her, he said then, ‘My question is of the Lily, the Lily of the Sea, and where is it, O marvel?’

And he heard a voice answer in the tones of a silver bell, clear as a wind in strung wires, ‘Where I lie, lies the Lily, the Lily of the Sea; I with it, it with me.’

Said he, ‘O breather of music, tell me how I may lay hand on the flower of beauty to bear it forth.’

And he heard the voice, ‘An equal space betwixt my right side and my left, and from the shoulder one span and half a span downward.’

Still without power to eye her, he measured the space and the spans, his hand beneath the coverlids of the couch, and at a spot of the bosom his hand sank in, and he felt a fluttering thing, fluttering like a frighted bird in the midst of the fire. And the voice said, ‘Quick, seize it, and draw it out, and tie it to my feet by the twines of red silk about it.’

He seized it and drew it out, and it was a heart — a heart of blood-streaming with crimson, palpitating. Tears flashed on his sight beholding it, and pity took the seat of fear, and he turned his eyes full on her, crying, ‘O sad fair thing! O creature of anguish! O painful beauty! Oh, what have I done to thee?’

But she panted, and gasped short and shorter gasps, pointing with one finger to her feet. Then he took the warm living heart while it yet leapt and quivered and sobbed; and he held it with a trembling hand, and tied it by the red twines of silk about it to her feet, staining their whiteness. When that was done, his whole soul melted with pity and swelled with sorrow, and ere he could meet her eyes a swoon overcame him. Surely, when the world dawned to him a third time in those regions the damsel was no longer there, but in her place the Lily of Light. He thought, ‘It was a vision, that damsel! a terrible one; one to terrify and bewilder! a bitter sweetness! Oh, the heart, the heart!’ Reflecting on the heart brought to his lids an overcharging of tears, and he wept violently awhile. Then was he warned by the thought of his betrothed to take the Lily and speed with it from the realms of Rabesqurat; and he stole along the halls of the palace, and by the plashing fountains, and across the magic courts, passing chambers of sleepers, fair dreamers, and through ante-rooms crowded with thick-lipped slaves. Lo, as he held the Lily to light him on, and the light of the Lily fell on them that were asleep, they paled and shrank, and were such as the death-chill maketh of us. So he called upon his head the protection of Allah, and went swifter, to chase from his limbs the shudder of awe; and there were some that slept not, but stared at him with fixed eyes, eyes frozen by the light of the Lily, and he shunned those, for they were like spectres, haunting spirits. After he had coursed the length of the palace, he came to a steep place outside it, a rock with steps cut in stairs, and up these he went till he came to a small door in the rock, and lying by it a bar; so he seized the bar and smote the door, and the door shivered, for on his right wrist were the hairs of Garraveen. Bending his body, he slipped through the opening, and behold, an orchard dropping blossoms and ripe golden fruits, streams flowing through it over sands, and brooks bounding above glittering gems, and long dewy grasses, profusion of scented flowers, shade and sweetness. So he let himself down to the ground, which was an easy leap from the aperture, and walked through the garden, holding the Lily behind him, for here it darkened all, and the glowing orchard was a desert by its light. Presently, his eye fell on a couch swinging between two almond trees, and advancing to it he beheld the black-eyed Queen gathered up, folded temptingly, like a swaying fruit; she with the gold circlet on her head, and she was fair as blossom of the almond in a breeze of the wafted rose-leaf. Sweetly was she gathered up, folded temptingly, and Shibli Bagarag refrained from using the Lily, thinking, ”Tis like the great things foretold of me, this having of Queens within the very grasp, swinging to and fro as if to taunt backwardness!’ Then he thought, ”Tis an enchantress! I will yet try her.’ So he made a motion of flourishing the Lily once or twice, but forbore, fascinated, for she had on her fair face the softness of sleep, her lips closed in dimples, and the wicked fire shut from beneath her lids. Mastering his mind, the youth at last held the Lily to her, and saw a sight to blacken the world and all bright things with its hideousness. Scarce had he time to thrust the Lily in his robes, when the Queen started up and clapped her hands, crying hurriedly, ‘Abarak! Abarak!’ and the little man appeared in a moment at the door by which Shibli Bagarag had entered the orchard. So, she cried still, ‘Abarak!’ and he moved toward her. Then she said, ‘How came this youth here, prying in my private walks, my bowers? Speak!’

He answered, ‘By the aid of Garraveen only, O Queen! and there is no force resisteth the bar so wielded.’

Rabesqurat looked under her brows at Shibli Bagarag and saw the horror on his face, and she cried out to Abarak in an agony, ‘Fetch me the mirror!’ Then Abarak ran, and returned ere the Queen had drawn seven impatient breaths, and in one hand he bore a sack, in the other a tray: so he emptied the contents of the sack on the surface of the tray; surely they were human eyes! and the Queen flung aside her tresses, and stood over them. The youth saw her smile at them, and assume tender and taunting manners before them, and imperious manners, killing glances, till in each of the eyes there was a sparkle. Then she flung back her head as one that feedeth on a mighty triumph, exclaiming, ‘Yet am I Rabesqurat! wide is my sovereignty.’ Sideways then she regarded Shibli Bagarag, and it seemed she was urging Abarak to do a deed beyond his powers, he frowning and pointing to the right wrist of the youth. So she clenched her hands an instant with that feeling which knocketh a nail in the coffin of a desire not dead, and controlled herself, and went to the youth, breaking into beams of beauty; and an enchanting sumptuousness breathed round her, so that in spite of himself he suffered her to take him by the hand and lead him from that orchard through the shivered door and into the palace and the hall of the jasper pillars. Strange thrills went up his arm from the touch of that Queen, and they were as little snakes twisting and darting up, biting poison-bites of irritating blissfulness.

Now, the hall was spread for a feast, and it was hung with lamps of silver, strewn with great golden goblets, and viands, coloured meats, and ordered fruits on shining platters. Then said she to Shibli Bagarag, ‘O youth! there shall be no deceit, no guile between us. Thou art but my guest, I no bride to thee, so take the place of the guest beside me.’

He took his seat beside her, Abarak standing by, and she helped the youth to this dish and that dish, from the serving of slaves, caressing him with flattering looks to starve aversion and nourish tender fellowship. And he was like one that slideth down a hill and can arrest his descent with a foot, yet faileth that freewill. When he had eaten and drunk with her, the Queen said, ‘O youth, no other than my guest! art thou not a prince in the country thou comest from?’

In a moment the pride of the barber forsook him, and he equivocated, saying, ‘O Queen! there is among the stars somewhere, as was divined by the readers of planets, a crown hanging for me, and I search a point of earth to intercept its fall.’

She marked him beguiled by vanity, and put sweetmeats to his mouth, exclaiming, ‘Thy manners be those of a prince!’ Then she sang to him of the loneliness of her life, and of one with whom she wished to share her state — such as he. And at her signal came troops of damsels that stood in rings and luted sweetly on the same theme — the Queen’s loneliness, her love. And he said to the Queen, ‘Is this so?’

She answered, ‘Too truly so!’

Now, he thought, ‘She shall at least speak the thing that is, if she look it not.’ So he took the goblet, and contrived to drop a drop from the phial of Paravid therein without her observing him; and he handed her the goblet, she him; and they drank. Surely, the change that came over the Queen was an enchantment, and her eyes shot lustre, her tongue was loosed, and she laughed like one intoxicated, lolling in her seat, lost to majesty and the sway of her magic, crying, ‘O Abarak! Abarak! little man, long my slave and my tool; ugly little man! And O Shibli Bagarag! nephew of the barber! weak youth! small prince of the tackle! have I not nigh fascinated thee? And thou wilt forfeit those two silly eyes of thine to the sack. And, O Abarak, Abarak! little man, have I flattered thee? So fetter I the strong with my allurements! and I stay the arrow in its flight! and I blunt the barb of high intents! Wah! I have drunk a potent stuff; I talk! Wullahy! I know there is a danger menacing Shagpat, and the eyes of all Genii are fixed on him. And if he be shaved, what changes will follow! But ’tis in me to delude the barber, wullahy! and I will avert the calamity. I will save Shagpat!’

While the Queen Rabesqurat prated in this wise with flushed face, Shibli Bagarag was smitten with the greatness of his task, and reproached his soul with neglect of it. And he thought, ‘I am powerful by spells as none before me have been, and ’twas by my weakness the Queen sought to tangle me. I will clasp the Seventh Pillar and make an end of it, by Allah and his Prophet (praised be the name!), and I will reach Aklis by a short path and shave Shagpat with the sword.’

So he looked up, and Abarak was before him, the lifted nostrils of the little man wide with the flame of anger. And Abarak said, ‘O youth, regard me with the eyes of judgement! Now, is it not frightful to rate me little? — an instigation of the evil one to repute me ugly?’

The promptings of wisdom counselled Shibli Bagarag to say, ‘Frightful beyond contemplation, O Abarak! one to shame our species! Surely, there is a moon between thy legs, a pear upon thy shoulders, and the cock that croweth is no match for thee in measure.’

Abarak cried, ‘We be aggrieved, we two! O youth, son of my uncle, I will give thee means of vengeance; give thou me means.’

Shibli Bagarag felt scorn at the Queen, and her hollowness, and he said, ”Tis well; take this Lily and hold it to her.’

Now, the Queen jeered Abarak, and as he approached her she shouted, ‘What! thou small of build! mite of creation! sour mixture! thou puppet of mine! thou! comest thou to seek a second kiss against the compact, knowing that I give not the well-favoured of mortals beyond one, a second.

Little delayed Abarak at this to put her to the test of the Lily, and he held the flower to her, and saw the sight, and staggered back like one stricken with a shaft. When he could get a breath he uttered such a howl that Rabesqurat in her drunkenness was fain to save her ears, and the hall echoed as with the bellows of a thousand beasts of the forest. Then, to glut his revenge he ran for the sack, and emptied the contents of it, the Queen’s mirror, before her; and the sackful of eyes, they saw the sight, and sickened, rolling their whites. That done, Abarak gave Shibli Bagarag the bar of iron, and bade him smite the pillars, all save the seventh; and he smote them strengthily, crumbling them at a blow, and bringing down the great hall and its groves, and glasses and gems, lamps, traceries, devices, a heap of ruin, the seventh pillar alone standing. Then, while he pumped back breath into his body, Abarak said, ‘There’s no delaying in this place now, O youth! Say, halt thou spells for the entering of Aklis?’

He answered, ‘Three!’

Then said Abarak, ”Tis well! Surely now, if thou takest me in thy service, I’ll help thee to master the Event, and serve thee faithfully, requiring nought from thee save a sight of the Event, and ’tis I that myself missed one, wiled by Rabesqurat.’

Quoth Shibli Bagarag, ‘Thou?’

He answered, ‘No word of it now. Is’t agreed?’

So Shibli Bagarag cried, ‘Even so.’

Thereupon, the twain entered the pillar, leaving Rabesqurat prone, and the waves of the sea bounding toward her where she lay. Now, they descended and ascended flights of slippery steps, and sped together along murky passages, in which light never was, and under arches of caves with hanging crystals, groping and tumbling on hurriedly, till they came to an obstruction, and felt an iron door, frosty to the touch. Then Abarak said to Shibli Bagarag, ‘Smite!’ And the youth lifted the bar to his right shoulder, and smote; and the door obeyed the blow, and discovered an opening into a strange dusky land, as it seemed a valley, on one side of which was a ragged copper sun setting low, large as a warrior’s battered shield, giving deep red lights to a brook that fell, and over a flat stream a red reflection, and to the sides of the hills a dark red glow. The sky was a brown colour; the earth a deeper brown, like the skins of tawny lions. Trees with reddened stems stood about the valley, scattered and in groups, showing between their leaves the cheeks of melancholy fruits swarthily tinged, and toward the centre of the valley a shining palace was visible, supported by massive columns of marble reddened by that copper sun. Shibli Bagarag was awed at the stillness that hung everywhere, and said to Abarak, ‘Where am I, O Abarak? the look of this place is fearful!’

And the little man answered, ‘Where, but beneath the mountains in Aklis? Wullahy! I should know it, I that keep the passage of the seventh pillar!’

Then the thought of his betrothed Noorna, and her beauty, and the words, ‘Remember the seventh pillar,’ struck the heart of Shibli Bagarag, and he exclaimed passionately, ‘Is she in safety? Noorna, my companion, my betrothed, netted by thee, O Abarak!’

Abarak answered sharply, ‘Speak not of betrothals in this place, or the sword of Aklis will move without a hand!’

But Shibli Bagarag waxed the colour of the sun that was over them, and cried, ‘By Allah! I will smite thee with the bar, if thou swear not to her safety, and point not out to me where she now is.’

Then said Abarak, ‘Thou wilt make a better use of the bar by lifting it to my shoulder, and poising it, and peering through it.’

Shibli Bagarag lifted the bar to the shoulder of Abarak, and poised it, and peered through the length of it, and lo! there was a sea tossing in tumult, and one pillar standing erect in the midst of the sea; and on the pillar, above the washing waves, with hair blown back, and flapping raiment, pale but smiling still, Noorna, his betrothed!

Now, when he saw her, he made a rush to the door of the passage; but Abarak blocked the way, crying, ‘Fool! a step backward in Aklis is death!’

And when he had wrestled with him and reined him, Abarak said, ‘Haste to reach the Sword from the sons of Aklis, if thou wouldst save her.’

He drew him to the brink of the stream, and whistled a parrot’s whistle; and Shibli Bagarag beheld a boat draped with drooping white lotuses that floated slowly toward them; and when it was near, he and Abarak entered it, and saw one, a veiled figure, sitting in the stern, who neither moved to them nor spake, but steered the boat to a certain point of land across the stream, where stood an elephant ready girt for travellers to mount him; and the elephant kneeled among the reeds as they approached, that they might mount him, and when they had each taken a seat, moved off, waving his trunk. Presently the elephant came to a halt, and went upon his knees again, and the two slid off his back, and were among black slaves that bowed to the ground before them, and led them to the shining gates of the palace in silence. Now, on the first marble step of the palace there sat an old white-headed man dressed like a dervish, who held out at arm’s length a branch of gold with golden singing-birds between its leaves, saying, ‘This for the strongest of ye!’

Abarak exclaimed, ‘I am that one’; and he held forth his hand for the branch.

But Shibli Bagarag cried, ‘Nay, ’tis mine. Wullahy, what has not the strength of this hand overthrown?’

Then the brows of Abarak twisted; his limbs twitched, and he bawled, ‘To the proof!’ waking all the echoes of Aklis. Shibli Bagarag was tempted in his desire for the golden branch to lift the iron bar upon Abarak, when lo! the phial of Paravid fell from his vest, and he took it, and sprinkled a portion of the waters over the singing birds, and in a moment they burst into a sweet union of voices, singing, in the words of the poet:

When for one serpent were two asses match?

How shall one foe but with wiles master double?

So let the strong keep for ever good watch,

Lest their strength prove a snare, and themselves a mere bubble;

For vanity maketh the strongest most weak,

As lions and men totter after the struggle.

Ye heroes, be modest! while combats ye seek,

The cunning one trippeth ye both with a juggle.

Now, at this verse of the birds Shibli Bagarag fixed his eye on the old man, and the beard of the old man shrivelled; he waxed in size, and flew up in a blaze and with a baffled shout bearing the branch; surely, his features were those of Karaz, and Shibli Bagarag knew him by the length of his limbs, his stiff ears, and copper skin. Then he laughed a loud laugh, but Abarak sobbed, saying, ‘By this know I that I never should have seized the Sword, even though I had vanquished the illusions of Rabesqurat, which held me fast half-way.’

So Shibli Bagarag stared at him, and said, ‘Wert thou also a searcher, O Abarak?’

But Abarak cried, ‘Rouse not the talkative tongue of the past, O youth! Wullahy! relinquish the bar that is my bar, won by me, for the Sword is within thy grip, and they await thee up yonder steps. Go! go! and look for me here on thy return.’

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/m/meredith/george/shaving-of-shagpat/chapter12.html

Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 23:09