The Shaving of Shagpat, by George Meredith

Koorookh

Now, they sped from the Cave of Chrysolites by another passage than that by which they entered it, and nothing but the light of the Sword to guide them. By that light Shibli Bagarag could distinguish glimmering shapes, silent and statue-like, to the right and the left of them, their visages hidden in a veil of heavy webs; and he saw what seemed in the dusk broad halls, halls of council, and again black pools and black groves, and columns of crowded porticoes — all signs of an underground kingdom. They came to some steps and mounted these severally, coming to a platform, in the middle of which leapt a fountain, the top spray of it touched with a beam of earth and the air breathed by men. Here he heard the youths dabble with the dark waters, and he discerned Gulrevaz tossing it in her two hands, calling, ‘Koorookh! Koorookh!’ Then they said to him, ‘Stir this fountain with the Sword, O Master of the Event!’ So he stirred the fountain, and the whole body of it took a leap toward the light that was like the shoot of a long lance of silver in the moon’s rays, and lo! in its place the ruffled feathers of a bird. Then the seven youths and the Princess and Shibli Bagarag got up under its feathers like a brood of water-fowl; and the bird winged straight up as doth a blinded bee, ascending, and passing in the ascent a widening succession of winding terraces, till he observed the copper sun of Aklis and the red lands below it. Thrice, in the exuberance of his gladness, he waved the Sword, and the sun lost that dulness on its disk and took a bright flame, and threw golden arrows everywhere; and the pastures were green, the streams clear, the sands sparkling. The bird flew, and circled, and hung poised a moment, presently descending on the roof of the palace. Now, there was here a piece of solid glass, propped on two crossed bars of gold, and it was shaped like an eye, and might have been taken for one of the eyes inhabiting the head of some monstrous Genie. Shibli Bagarag ran to it when he was afoot, and peered through it. Surely, it was the first object of his heart that he beheld — Noorna, his betrothed, pale on the pillar; she with her head between her hands and her hair scattered by the storm, as one despairing. Still he looked, and he save swimming round the pillar that monstrous fish, with its sole baleful eye, which had gulped them both in the closed shell of magic pearl; and he knew the fish for Karaz, the Genie, their enemy. Then he turned to the Princess, with an imploring voice for counsel how to reach her and bring her rescue; but she said, ‘The Sword is in thy hands, none of us dare wield it’; and the seven youths answered likewise. So, left to himself, he drew the Sword from his girdle, and hissed on the heads of the serpents, at the same time holding it so that it might lengthen out inimitably. Then he leaned it over the eye of the glass, in the direction of the pillar besieged by the billows, and lo! with one cut, even at that distance, he divided the fishy monster, and with another severed the chains that had fettered Noorna; and she arose and smiled blissfully to the sky, and stood upright, and signalled him to lay the point of the blade on the pillar. When he had done this, knowing her wisdom, she put a foot boldly upon the blade and ran up it toward him, and she was half-way up the blade, when suddenly a kite darted down upon her, pecking at her eyes, to confuse her. She waxed unsteady and swayed this way and that, balancing with one arm and defending herself from the attacks of the kite with another. It seemed to Shibli Bagarag she must fall and be lost; and the sweat started on his forehead in great drops big as nuts. Seeing that and the agitation of his limbs, Gulrevaz cried, ‘O Master of the Event, let us hear it!’

But he shrieked, ‘The kite! the kite! she is running up the blade, and the kite is at her eyes! and she swaying, swaying! falling, falling!’

So the Princess exclaimed, ‘A kite! Koorookh is match for a kite!’

Then she smoothed the throat of Koorookh, and clasped round it a collar of bright steel, roughened with secret characters; and she took a hoop of gold, and passed the bird through it, urging it all the while with one strange syllable; and the bird went up with a strong whirr of the wing till he was over the sea, and caught sight of Noorna tottering beneath him on the blade, and the kite pecking fiercely at her. Thereat he fluttered eagerly a twinkle of time, and the next was down with his beak in the neck of the kite, crimsoned in it. Now, by the shouts and exclamations of Shibli Bagarag, the Princess and the seven youths, her brothers, knew that the bird had performed well his task, and that the fight was between Koorookh and the kite. Then he cried gladly to them, ‘Joy for us, and Allah be praised! The kite is dropping, and she leaneth on one wing of Koorookh!’

And he cried in anguish, ‘What see I? The kite is become a white ball, rolling down the blade toward her; and it will of a surety destroy her.’ And he called to her, thinking vainly his voice might reach her. So the Princess said, ‘A white ball? ’tis I that am match for a white ball!’

Now, she seized from the corner of the palace-roof a bow and an arrow, and her brothers lifted her to a level with the hilt of the Sword, leaning on the eye of glass. Then she planted one foot on the shoulder of Shibli Bagarag as he bent peering through the eye, and fitted the arrow to a level of the Sword, slanting its slant, and let it fly, doubling the bow. Shibli Bagarag saw the ball roll to within a foot of Noorna, when it was as if stricken by a gleam of light, and burst, and was a black cloud veined with fire, swathing her in folds. He lost all sight of Noorna; and where she had been were vivid flashes, and then a great flame, and in the midst a red serpent and a green serpent twisted as in the death-struggle. So he cried, ‘A red serpent and a green serpent!’

And the sons of Aklis exclaimed, ‘A red serpent? ’Tis we that are match for a red serpent!’

Thereupon they descended steps through the palace roof, and while the fight between those two serpents was rageing, Shibli Bagarag beheld seven small bright birds, bee-catchers, that entered the flame, bearing in their bills slips of a herb, and hovering about the heal of the red serpent, distracting it. Then he saw the red serpent hiss and snap at one, darting out its tongue, and lo! on the fork of its tongue the little bird let fall the slip of herb in its bill, and in an instant the serpent changed from red to yellow and from yellow to pale-spotted blue, and from that to a speckled indigo-colour, writhing at every change, and hissing fire from its open jaws. Meantime the green serpent was released and was making circles round the flame, seeking to complete some enchantment, when suddenly the whole scene vanished, and Shibli Bagarag again beheld Noorna steadying her steps on the blade, and leaning on one wing of Koorookh. She advanced up the blade, coming nearer and nearer; and he thought her close, and breathed quick and ceased looking through the glass. When he gazed abroad, lo! she was with Koorookh, on a far hill beyond the stream in outer Aklis. So he said to the Princess Gulrevaz, ‘O Princess, comes she not to me here in the palace?’

But the Princess shook her head, and said, ‘She hath not a spell! She waiteth for thee yonder with Koorookh. Now, look through the glass once more.’

He looked through the glass, and there on a plain, as he had first seen it when Noorna appeared to him, was the City of Shagpat, and in the streets of the city a vast assembly, and a procession passing on, its front banner surmounted by the Crescent, and bands with curled and curved instruments playing, and slaves scattering gold and clashing cymbals, every demonstration and evidence of a great day and a high occasion in the City of Shagpat! So he peered yet keenlier through the glass, and behold, the Vizier Feshnavat, father of Noorna, walking in fetters, subject to the jibes and evil-speaking of the crowds of people, his turban off, and he in a robe of drab-coloured stuff, in the scorned condition of an unbeliever. Shibli Bagarag peered yet more earnestly through the glass eye, and in the centre of the procession, clad gorgeously in silks and stuffs, woven with gold and gems, a crown upon his head, and the appanages of supremacy and majesty about him, was Shagpat. He paced upon a yellow flooring that was unrolled before him from a mighty roll; and there were slaves that swarmed on all sides of him, supporting upon gold pans and platters the masses of hair that spread bushily before and behind, and to the right and left of him. Truly the gravity of his demeanour exceeded that which is attained by Sheiks and Dervishes after much drinking of the waters of wisdom, and fasting, and abnegation of the pleasures that betray us to folly in this world! Now, when he saw Shagpat, the soul of Shibli Bagarag was quickened to do his appointed work upon him, shear him, and release the Vizier Feshnavat. Desire to shave Shagpat was as a salt thirst rageing in him, as the dream of munching to one that starveth; even as the impelling of violent tempests to skiffs on the sea; and he hungered to be at him, crying, as he peered, ”Tis he! even he, Shagpat!’

Then he turned to the Princess Gulrevaz, and said, ”Tis Shagpat, exalted, clothed with majesty, O thou morning star of Aklis!’

She said, ‘Koorookh is given thee, and waiteth to carry ye both; and for me I will watch that this glass send forth a beam to light ye to that city; so farewell, O thou that art loved! And delay in nothing to finish the work in hand.’

Now, when he had set his face from the Princess he descended through the roof of the palace, and met the seven youths returning, and they accompanied him through the halls of the palace to that hall where the damsels had duped him. He was mindful of his promise to the old man crowned, and flashed the Sword a strong flash, so that he who looked on it would be seared in the eyelashes. Then the doors of the recesses flew apart, eight-and-ninety in number, and he beheld divers sitters on thrones, with the diadem of asses’ ears stiffened upright, and monkeys’ skulls grinning with gems; they having on each countenance the look of sovereigns and the serenity of high estate. Shibli Bagarag laughed at them, and he thought, ‘Wullahy! was I one of these? I, the beloved of Noorna, destined Master of the Event!’ and he thought, ‘Of a surety, if these sitters could but laugh at themselves, there would be a release for them, and the crown would topple off which getteth the homage of asses and monkeys!’ He would have spoken to them, but the sons of Aklis said, ‘They have seen the flashing of the Sword, and ’twere well they wake not.’ As they went from the hall the seven youths said, ‘Reflect upon the age of these sitters, that have been sitting in the chairs from three to eleven generations back! And they were searchers of the Sword like thee, but were duped! In like manner, the hen sitteth in complacency, but she bringeth forth and may cackle; ’tis owing to the aids of Noorna that thou art not one of these sitters, O Master of the Event!’ Now, they paced through the hall of dainty provender, and through the hall of the jewel-fountains, coming to the palace steps, where stood Abarak leaning on his bar. As they advanced to Abarak, there was a clamour in the halls behind, that gathered in noise like a torrent, and approached, and presently the Master was ware of a sharp stroke on his forehead with a hairy finger, and then a burn, and the Crown that had clung to him toppled off; surely it fell upon the head of the old monkey, the cautious and wise one, he that had made a study of Shibli Bagarag. Thereupon that monkey stalked scornfully from them; and Abarak cried, ‘O Master of the Event! it was better for me to keep the passage of the Seventh Pillar, than be an ape of this order. Wah! the flashing of the Sword scorcheth them, and they scamper.’

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