The Shaving of Shagpat, by George Meredith

The Sons of Aklis

Now, Shibli Bagarag thought, ‘The poet is right in Aklis as elsewhere, in his words:

“The cunning of our oft-neglected wit

Doth best the keyhole of occasion fit”;

and whoso looketh for help from others looketh the wrong way in an undertaking. Wah! I will be bold and batter at the hundredth door, which is the door of the Sword.’ So he advanced straightway to the door, which was one of solid silver, charactered with silver letters, and knocked against it three knocks; and a voice within said, ‘What spells?’

He answered, ‘Paravid; Garraveen; and the Lily of the Sea!’

Upon that the voice said, ‘Enter by virtue of the spells!’ and the silver door swung open, discovering a deep pit, lightened by a torch, and across it, bridging it, a string of enormous eggs, rocs’ eggs, hollowed, and so large that a man might walk through them without stooping. At the side of each egg three lamps were suspended from a claw, and the shell passage was illumined with them from end to end. Shibli Bagarag thought, ‘These eggs are of a surety the eggs of the Roc mastered by Aklis with his sword!’ Now, as the sight of Shibli Bagarag grew familiar to the place, he beheld at the bottom of the pit a fluttering mass of blackness and two sickly eyes that glittered below.

Then thought he, ‘Wah! if that be the Roc, and it not dead, will the bird suffer one to defile its eggs with other than the sole of the foot, naked?’ He undid his sandals and kicked off the slippers given him by the damsels that had duped him, and went into the first egg over the abyss, and into the second, and into the third, and into the fourth, and into the fifth. Surely the eggs swung with him, and bent; and the fear of their breaking and he falling into the maw of the terrible bird made him walk unevenly. When he had come to the seventh egg, which was the last, it shook and swung violently, and he heard underneath the flapping of the wings of the Roc, as with eagerness expecting a victim to prey upon. He sustained his soul with the firmness of resolve and darted himself lengthwise to the landing, clutching a hold with his right hand; as he did so, the bridge of eggs broke, and he heard the feathers of the bird in agitation, and the bird screaming a scream of disappointment as he scrambled up the sides of the pit.

Now, Shibli Bagarag failed not to perform two prostrations to Allah, and raised the song of gratitude for his preservation when he found himself in safety. Then he looked up, and lo! behind a curtain, steps leading to an anteroom, and beyond that a chamber like the chamber of kings where they sit in state dispensing judgements, like the sun at noon in splendour; and in the chamber seven youths, tall and comely young men, calm as princes in their port, each one dressed in flowing robes, and with a large glowing pearl in the front of their turbans. They advanced to meet him, saying, ‘Welcome to Aklis, thou that art proved worthy! ’Tis holiday now with us’; and they took him by the hand and led him with them in silence past fountain-jets and porphyry pillars to where a service with refreshments was spread, meats, fowls with rice, sweetmeats, preserves, palateable mixtures, and monuments of the cook’s art, goblets of wine like liquid rubies. Then one of the youths said to Shibli Bagarag, ‘Thou hast come to us crowned, O our guest! Now, it is not our custom to pay homage, but thou shalt presently behold them that will, so let not thy kingliness droop with us, but feast royally.’

And Shibli Bagarag said, ‘O my princes, surely it is a silly matter to crown a mouse! Humility hath depressed my stature! Wullahy, I have had warning in the sticking of this crown to my brows, and it sticketh like an abomination.’

They laughed at him, saying, ‘It was the heaviness of that crown which overweighted thee in the bridge of the abyss, and few be they that bear it and go not to feed the Roc.’

Now, they feasted together, interchanging civilities, offering to each other choice morsels, dainties. And the anecdotes of Shibli Bagarag, his simplicity and his honesty, and his vanity and his airiness, and the betraying tongue of the barber, diverted the youths; and they plied him with old wine till his stores of merriment broke forth and were as a river swollen by torrents of the mountain; and the seven youths laughed at him, spluttering with laughter, lurching with it. Surely, he described to them the loquacity of Baba Mustapha his uncle, and they laughed so that their chins were uppermost; but at his mention of Shagpat greater gravity was theirs, and they smoothed their faces solemnly, and the sun of their merriment was darkened for awhile. Then they took to flinging about pellets of a sugared preparation, and reciting verses in praise of jovial living, challenging to drink this one and that one, passing the cup with a stanza. Shibli Bagarag thought, ‘What a life is this led by these youths! a fair one! ’Tis they that be the sons of Aklis who sharpen the Sword of Events; yet live they in jollity, skimming from the profusion of abundance that which floateth!’

Now, marking him contemplative, one of the youths shouted, ‘The King lacketh homage!’

And another called, ‘Admittance for his people!’

Then the seven arose and placed Shibli Bagarag on an elevation in the midst of them, and lo! a troop of black slaves leading by the collar, asses, and by a string, monkeys. Now, for the asses they brayed to the Evil One, and the monkeys were prankish, pulling against the string, till they caught sight of Shibli Bagarag. Then was it as if they had been awestricken; and they came forward to him with docile steps, eyeing the crown on his head, and prostrated themselves, the asses and the monkeys, like creatures in whom glowed the lamp of reason and the gift of intelligence. So Shibli Bagarag drooped his jaw and was ashamed, and he cried, ‘my princes! am I a King of these?’

They answered, ‘A King in mightiness! Sultan of a race!’

So he said, ‘It is certain I shall need physic to support such a sovereignty! And I must be excused liberal allowances of old wine to sit in state among them. Wullahy! they were best gone for awhile. Send them from me, O my princes! I sicken.’

And he called to the animals, ‘Away! begone!’ frowning.

Then said the youths, ‘Well commanded! and like a King! See, they troop from thy presence obediently.’

Now the animals fled from before the brows of Shibli Bagarag, and when the chamber was empty of them the seven young men said, ‘Of a surety thou wert flattered to observe the aspect of these animals at beholding thee.’

But he cried, ‘Not so, O my princes; there is nought flattering in the homage of asses and monkeys.’

Then they said, ‘O Sultan of asses, ruler of monkeys, better that than thyself an ass and an ape! As was said by Shah Kasirwan, “I prefer being king of beasts worshipped by beasts, rather than a crowned beast worshipped by men”; and it was well said. Wullahy! the kings of Roum quote it.’

Now Shibli Bagarag was not rendered oblivious of the Sword of his quest by the humour of these youths, or the wine-bibbings, and he exclaimed while they were turning up the heels of their cups, ‘O ye sons of Aklis, know that I have come hither for the Sword sharpened by your hands, for the releasing of my betrothed, Noorna bin Noorka, daughter of the Vizier Feshnavat, and for the shaving of Shagpat.’

While he was proceeding to recount the story of his search for the Sword, they said, ‘Enough, O potentate of the braying class and of the scratching tribe! we have seen thee through the eye of Aklis since the time of thy first thwacking. What says the poet?

“A day for toil and a day for rest

Gives labour zeal, and pleasure zest.”

So, of thy seeking let us hear tomorrow; but now drink with us, and make merry, and touch the springs of memory; spout forth verses, quaint ones, suitable to the hour and the entertainment. Wullahy! drink with us! taste life! Let the humours flow.’

Then they made a motion to some slaves, and presently a clattering of anklets struck the ear of Shibli Bagarag: and he beheld dancing-girls, moons of beauty and elegance, and they danced wild dances, and dances graceful and leopard-like and serpent-like in movement; and the youths flung flowers at them, applauding them. Then came other sets of dancers even lovelier, more languishing; and again others with tambourines and musical instruments, that sang ravishingly. So the senses of Shibli Bagarag were all taken with what he saw and heard, and ate and drank; and by degrees a mist came before his eyes, and the sweet sounds and voices of the girls grew distant, and it was with difficulty he kept his back from the length of the cushions that were about him. Then he thought of Noorna, and that she sang to him and danced, and when he rose to embrace her she was Rabesqurat by the light of the Lily! And he thought of Shagpat, and that in shaving him the blade was checked in its rapid sweep, and blunted by a stumpy twine of hair that waxed in size and became the head of Karaz that gulped at him a wide devouring gulp, and took him in, and flew up with him, leaving Shagpat half sheared. Then he thought himself struggling halfway down the throat of the monstrous Roc, and that, when he was wholly inside the Roc, he was in a wide-arched passage crowded with lamps, and at the end of the passage Noorna in the clutch of Karaz, she shouting, ‘The Sword, the Sword!’

Now, while he felt for the Sword wherewith to release her from the Genie, his eyes opened, and he saw day through a casement, and that he had reposed on an embroidered couch in the corner of a stately room ornamented with carvings of blue and gold. So while he wondered and yawned, gaping, slaves started up from the floor and led him to a bath of coloured marble, and bathed him in perfumed waters, and dressed him in a dress of yellow silk, rich and ample. Then they paraded before him through lesser apartments and across terraces, till they came to a great hall; loftier and more spacious than any he had yet beheld, with fountains at the two ends, and in the centre a tree with golden spreading branches and leaves of gold; among the leaves gold-feathered birds, and fruits of all seasons and every description — the drooping grape and the pleasant-smelling quince, and the blood-red pomegranate, and the apricot, and the green and rosy apple, and the gummy date, and the oily pistachio-nut, and peaches, and citrons, and oranges, and the plum, and the fig. Surely, they were countless in number, melting with ripeness, soft, full to bursting; and the birds darted among them like sun-flashes. Now, Shibli Bagarag thought, ‘This is a wondrous tree! Wullahy! there is nought like it save the tree in the hall of the Prophet in Paradise, feeding the faithful!’ As he regarded it he heard his name spoken in the hall, and turning he beheld seven youths in royal garments, that were like the youths he had feasted with, and yet unlike them, pale, and stern in their manners, their courtesy as the courtesy of kings. They said, ‘Sit with us and eat the morning’s meal, O our guest!’

So he sat with them under the low branches of the tree; and they whistled the tune of one bird and of another bird, and of another, and lo! those different birds flew down with golden baskets hanging from their bills, and in the baskets fruits and viands and sweetmeats, and cool drinks. And Shibli Bagarag ate from the baskets of the birds, watching the action of the seven youths and the difference that was in them. He sought to make them recognise him and acknowledge their carouse of the evening that was past, but they stared at him strangely and seemed offended at the allusion, neither would they hear mention of the Sword of his seeking. Presently, one of the youths stood upon his feet and cried, “The time for kings to sit in judgement!”

And the youths arose and led Shibli Bagarag to a hall of ebony, and seated him on the upper seat, themselves standing about him; and lo! asses and monkeys came before him, complaining of the injustice of men and their fellows, in brays and bellows and hoots. Now, at the sight of them again Shibli Bagarag was enraged, and he said to the youths, ‘How! do ye not mock me, O masters of Aklis!’

But they said only, ‘The burden of his crown is for the King.’

He cooled, thinking, ‘I will use a spell.’ So he touched the lips of an animal with the waters of Paravid, and the animal prated volubly in our language of the kick this ass had given him, and the jibe of that monkey, and of his desire of litigation with such and such a beast for pasture; and the others when they spake had the same complaints to make. Shibli Bagarag listened to them gravely, and it was revealed to him that he who ruleth over men hath a labour and duties of hearing and judging and dispensing judgement similar to those of him who ruleth over apes and asses. Then said he, ‘O youths, my princes! methinks the sitting in this seat giveth a key to secret sources of wisdom; and I see what it is, the glory and the exaltation coveted by men.’ Now, he took from the asses and the monkeys one, and said to it, ‘Be my chief Vizier,’ and to another, ‘Be my Chamberlain!’ and to another, ‘Be my Treasurer!’ and so on, till a dispute arose between the animals, and jealousy of each other was visible in their glances, and they appealed to him clamorously. So he said, ‘What am I to ye?’

They answered, ‘Our King!’

And he said, ‘How so?’

They answered, ‘By the crowning of the brides of Aklis.’

Then he said, ‘What be ye, O my subjects?’

They answered, ‘Men that were searchers of the Sword and plunged into the tank of temptation.’

And he said, ‘How that?’

They answered, ‘By the lures of vanity, the blinding of ambition, and tasting the gall of the Roc.’

So Shibli Bagarag leaned to the seven youths, saying, ‘O my princes, but for not tasting the gall of the Roc I might be as one of these. Wullahy! I the King am warned by base creatures.’ Then he said to the animals, ‘Have ye still a longing for the crown?’

And they cried, all of them, ‘O light of the astonished earth, we care for nought other than it.’

So he said, ‘And is it known to ye how to dispossess the wearer of his burden?’

They answered, ‘By a touch of the gall of the Roc on his forehead.’

Then he lifted his arms, crying, ‘Hie out of my presence! and whoso of ye fetcheth a drop of the gall, with that one will I exchange the crown.’

At these words some moved hastily, but the most faltered, as doubting and incredulous that he would propose such an exchange; and one, an old monkey, sat down and crossed his legs, and made a study of Shibli Bagarag, as of a sovereign that held forth a deceiving bargain. But he cried again, ‘Hie and haste! as my head is now cased I think it not the honoured part.’

Then the old monkey arose with a puzzled look, half scornful, and made for the door slowly, turning his head toward Shibli Bagarag betweenwhiles as he went, and scratching his lower limbs with the mute reflectiveness of age and extreme caution.

Now, when they were gone, Shibli Bagarag looked in the eyes of the seven youths, and saw they were content with him, and his countenance was brightened with approval. So he descended from his seat, and went with them from the hall of ebony to a court where horses were waiting saddled, and slaves with hawks on their wrists stood in readiness; and they mounted each a horse, but he loitered. The seven youths divined his feeling, and cried impatiently, ‘Come! no lingering in Aklis!’ So he mounted likewise, and they emerged from the palace, and entered the hills that glowed under the copper sun, and started a milk-white antelope with ruby spots, and chased it from its cover over the sand-hills, a hawk being let loose to worry it and distress its timid beaming eyes. When the creature was quite overcome, one of the youths struck his heel into his horse’s side and flung a noose over the head of the quarry, and drew it with them, gently petting it the way home to the palace. At the gates of the palace it was released, and lo! it went up the steps, and passed through the halls as one familiar with them. Now, when they were all assembled in the anteroom of the hall, where Shibli Bagarag had first seen the seven youths, sons of Aklis, in their jollity, one of them said to the Antelope, ‘We have need of thee to speak a word with Aklis, O our sister!’

So the same youth requested the use of the phial of Paravid, and Shibli Bagarag applied it carefully, tenderly, to the mouth of the Antelope. Then the Antelope spake in a silver-ringing voice, saying, ‘What is it, O my brothers?’

They answered, ‘Thou knowest we dare not attempt interchange of speech with Aklis, seeing that we disobeyed him in visiting the kingdoms of the earth: so it is for thee to question him as to the object of this youth, and it is the Shaving of Shagpat.’

So she said, ”Tis well; I wot of it.’

Then she advanced to the curtain concealing the abyss of the Roc and the bridge of its eggs, and went behind it. There was a pause, and they heard her say presently in a grave voice, toned with reverence, ‘How is it, O our father? is it a good thing that thy Sword be in use at this season?’

And they heard the Voice answer from a depth, ”Twere well it rust not!’

They heard her say, ‘O our father Aklis, and we wish to know if be held in favour by thee, and thou sanction it with thy Sword.’

And they heard the Voice answer, ‘The Shaving of Shagpat is my Sword alone equal to, and he that shaveth him performeth a service to mankind ranking next my vanquishing of the Roc.’

Then they heard her say, ‘And it is thy will we teach him the mysteries of the Sword, and that which may be done with it?’

And they heard the Voice answer, ‘Even so!’

After that the Voice was still, and soon the Antelope returned from behind the curtain, and the youths caressed her with brotherly caresses, and took a circle of hands about her, and so moved to the great Hall of the gorgeous Tree, and fed her from the branches. Now, while they were there, Shibli Bagarag advanced to the Antelope, and knelt at her feet, and said, ‘O Princess of Aklis, surely I am betrothed to one constant as a fixed star, and brighter; a mistress of magic, and innocent as the bleating lamb; and she is now on a pillar, chained there, in the midst of the white wrathful sea, wailing for me to deliver her with this Sword of my seeking. So, now, I pray thee help me to the Sword swiftly, that I may deliver her.’

The youths, her brothers, clamoured and interposed, saying, ‘Take thy shape ere that, O Gulrevaz, our sister!’

But she cried, ‘He is betrothed! not till he graspeth the Sword. Tell him, the youth, our conditions, and for what exchange the Sword is yielded.’

And they said, ‘The conditions are, thou part with thy spells, all of them, O youth!’

And he said, ‘There is no condition harsh that exchangeth the Sword; O ye Seven, I agree!’

Then she said, ”Tis well! nobility is in the soul of this youth. Go before us now to the Cave of Chrysolites, O my brothers.’

So these departed before, and she in her antelope form followed footing gracefully, and made Shibli Bagarag repeat the story of his betrothal as they went.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/m/meredith/george/shaving-of-shagpat/chapter14.html

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