The Shaving of Shagpat, by George Meredith

The Dish of Pomegranate Grain

Now, in the City of Shagpat, Kadza, spouse of Shagpat, she that had belaboured Shibli Bagarag, had a dream while these things were doing; and it was a dream of danger and portent to the glory of her eyes, Shagpat. So, at the hour when he was revealed to Shibli Bagarag, made luminous by the beams of Aklis, Kadza went to an inner chamber, and greased her hands and her eyelids, and drank of a phial, and commenced tugging at a brass ring fixed in the floor, and it yielded and displayed an opening, over which she stooped the upper half of her leanness, and pitching her note high, called ‘Karaz!’ After that, she rose and retreated from the hole hastily, and in the winking of an eye it was filled, as ’twere a pillar of black smoke, by the body of the Genie, he breathing hard with mighty travel. So he cried to her between his pantings and puffings, ‘Speak! where am I wanted, and for what?’

Now, Kadza was affrighted at the terribleness of his manner, and the great smell of the Genie was an intoxication in her nostril, so that she reeled and could just falter out, ‘Danger to the Identical!’

Then he, in a voice like claps of thunder, ‘Out with it!’

She answered beseechingly, ”Tis a dream I had, O Genie; a dream of danger to him.’

While she spake, the Genie clenched his fists and stamped so that the palace shook and the earth under it, exclaiming, ‘O abominable Kadza! a dream is it? another dream? Wilt thou cease dreaming awhile, thou silly woman? Know I not he that’s powerful against us is in Aklis, crowned ape, and that his spells are gone? And I was distilling drops to defy the Sword and strengthen Shagpat from assault, yet bringest thou me from my labour by the Putrid Sea with thy accursed dream!’ Thereat, he frowned and shot fire at her from his eyes, so that she singed, and the room thickened with a horrible smell of burning. She feared greatly and trembled, but he cooled himself against the air, crying presently in a diminished voice, ‘Let’s hear this dream, thou foolish Kadza! ’Tis as well to hear it. Probably Rabesqurat hath sent thee some sign from Aklis, where she ferryeth a term. What’s that saying:

“A woman’s at the core of every plot man plotteth,

And like an ill-reared fruit, first at the core it rotteth.”

So, out with it, thou Kadza!’

Now, the urgency of that she had dreamed overcame fear in Kadza, and she said, ‘O great Genie and terrible, my dream was this. Lo! I saw an assemblage of the beasts of the forests and them that inhabit wild places. And there was the elephant and the rhinoceros and the hippopotamus, and the camel and the camelopard, and the serpent and the striped tiger; also the antelope, the hyena, the jackal, and above them, eminent in majesty, the lion. Surely, he sat as ’twere on a high seat, and they like suppliants thronging the presence: this I saw, the heart on my ribs beating for Shagpat. And there appeared among the beasts a monkey all ajoint with tricks, jerking with malice, he looking as ’twere hungry for the doing of things detestable; and the lion scorned him, and I marked him ridicule the lion: ’twas so. And the lion began to scowl, and the other beasts marked the displeasure of the lion. Then chased they that monkey from the presence, and for awhile he was absent, and the lion sat in his place gravely, with calm, receiving homage of the other beasts; and down to his feet came the eagle that’s lord of air, and before him kneeled the great elephant, and the subtle serpent eyed him with awe. But soon did that monkey, the wretched animal! reappear, and there was no peace for the lion, he worrying till close within stretch of the lion’s paw! Wah! the lion might have crushed him, but that he’s magnanimous. And so it was that as the monkey advanced the lion roared to him, “Begone!”

‘And the monkey cried, “Who commandeth?”

‘So the lion roared, “The King of beasts and thy King!”

‘Then that monkey cried, “Homage to the King of beasts and my King! Allah keep him in his seat, and I would he were visible.”

‘So the lion roared, “He sitteth here acknowledged, thou graceless animal! and he’s before thee apparent.”

‘Then the monkey affected eagerness, and gazed about him, and peered on this beast and on that, exclaiming like one that’s injured and under slight, “What’s this I’ve done, and wherein have I offended, that he should be hidden from me when pointed out?”

‘So the lion roared, “’Tis I where I sit, thou offensive monkey!”

‘Then that monkey in the upper pitch of amazement, “Thou! Is it for created thing to acknowledge a king without a tail? And, O beasts of the forest and the wilderness, how say ye? Am I to blame that I bow not to one that hath it not?”

‘Upon that, the lion rose, and roared in the extreme of wrath; but the word he was about to utter was checked in him, for ’twas manifest that where he would have lashed a tail he shook a stump, wagging it as the dog doth. Lo! when the lion saw that, the majesty melted from him, and in a moment the plumpness of content and prosperity forsook him, so that his tawny skin hung flabbily and his jaw drooped, and shame deprived him of stateliness; abashed was he! Now, seeing the lion shamed in this manner, my heart beat violently for Shagpat, so that I awoke with the strength of its beating, and ’twas hidden from me whether the monkey was punished by the lion, or exalted by the other beasts in his place, or how came it that the lion’s tail was lost, witched from him by that villain of mischief, the monkey; but, O great Genie, I knew there was a lion among men, reverenced, and with enemies; that lion, he that espoused me and my glory, Shagpat! ’Twas enough to know that and tremble at the omen of my dream, O Genie. Wherefore I thought it well to summon thee here, that thou mightest set a guard over Shagpat, and shield him from the treacheries that beset him.’

When Kadza had ceased speaking, the Genie glowered at her awhile in silence. Then said he, ‘What creature is that, Kadza, which tormenteth like the tongue of a woman, is small as her pretensions to virtue, and which showeth how the chapters of her history should be read by the holy ones, even in its manner of movement?’

Cried Kadza, ‘The flea that hoppeth!’

So he said, ”Tis well! Hast thou strength to carry one of my weight, O Kadza?’

She answered in squeamishness, ‘I, wullahy! I’m but a woman, Genie, though the wife of Shagpat: and to carry thee is for the camel and the elephant and the horse.’

Then he, ‘Tighten thy girdle, and when tightened, let a loose loop hang from it.’

She did that, and he gave her a dark powder in her hand, saying, ‘Swallow the half of this, and what remaineth mix with water, and sprinkle over thee.’

That did she, and thereupon he exclaimed, ‘Now go, and thy part is to move round Shagpat; and a wind will strike thee from one quarter, and from which quarter it striketh is the one of menace and danger to Shagpat.’

So Kadza was diligent in doing what the Genie commanded, and sought for Shagpat, and moved round him many times; but no wind struck her. She went back to the Genie, and told him of this, and the Genie cried, ‘What? no wind? not one from Aklis? Then will Shagpat of a surety triumph, and we with him.’

Now, there was joy on the features of Kadza and Karaz, till suddenly he said, ‘Halt in thy song! How if there be danger and menace above? and ’tis the thing that may be.’

Then he seized Kadza, and slung her by him, and went into the air, and up it till the roofs of the City of Shagpat were beneath their feet, all on them visible. And under an awning, on the roof of a palace, there was the Vizier Feshnavat and Baba Mustapha, they ear to lip in consultation, and Baba Mustapha brightening with the matter revealed to him, and bobbing his head, and breaking on the speech of the Vizier. Now, when he saw them the Genie blew from his nostrils a double stream of darkness which curled in a thick body round and round him, and Kadza slung at his side was enveloped in it, as with folds of a huge serpent. Then the Genie hung still, and lo! two radiant figures swept toward the roof he watched, and between them Noorna bin Noorka, her long dark hair borne far backward, and her robe of silken stuff fluttering and straining on the pearl buttons as she flew. There was that in her beauty and the silver clearness of her temples and her eyes, and her cheeks, and her neck, and chin and ankles, that made the Genie shudder with love of her, and he was nigh dropping Kadza to the ground, forgetful of all save Noorna. When he recovered, and it was by tightening his muscles till he was all over hard knots, Noorna was seated on a cushion, and descending he heard her speak his name. Then sniffed he the air, and said to Kadza, ‘O spouse of Shagpat, a plot breweth, and the odour of it is in my nostril. Fearest thou a scorching for his sake thou adorest, the miracle of men?’

She answered, ‘On my head be it, and my eyes!’

He said, ‘I shall alight thee behind the pole of awning on yonder roof, where are the two bright figures and the dingy one, and the Vizier Feshnavat and Noorna bin Noorka. A flame will spring up severing thee from them; but thou’rt secure from it by reason of the powder I gave thee, all save the hair that’s on thee. Thou’lt have another shape than that which is thine, even that of a slave of Noorna bin Noorka, and say to her when she asketh thy business with her, “O my mistress, let the storm gather-in the storm-bird when it would surprise men.” Do this, and thy part’s done, O Kadza!’

Thereupon he swung a circle, and alighted her behind the pole of awning on the roof, and vanished, and the circle of flame rose up, and Kadza passed through it slightly scorched, and answered to the question of Noorna, ‘O my mistress, let the storm gather-in the storm-bird when it would surprise men.’ Now, when Noorna beheld her, and heard her voice, she pierced the disguise, and was ware of the wife of Shagpat, and glanced her large eyes over Kadza from head to sole till they rested on the loose loop in her girdle. Seeing that, she rose up, and stretched her arms, and spread open the palm of her hand, and slapped Kadza on the cheek and ear a hard slap, so that she heard bells; and ere she ceased to hear them, another, so that Kadza staggered back and screamed, and Feshnavat was moved to exclaim, ‘What has the girl, thy favourite, offended in, O my daughter?’

So Noorna continued slapping Kadza, and cried, ‘Is she not sluttish? and where’s the point of decency established in her, this Luloo? Shall her like appear before thee and me with loose girdle!’

Then she pointed to the girdle, and Kadza tightened the loose loop, and fell upon the ground to avoid the slaps, and Noorna knelt by her, and clutched at a portion of her dress and examined it, peering intently; and she caught up another part, and knotted it as if to crush a living creature, hunting over her, and grasping at her; and so it was that while she tore strips from the garments of Kadza, Feshnavat jumped suddenly in wrath, and pinched over his garments, crying, ’Tis unbearable! ’Tis I know not what other than a flea that persecuteth me:’

Upon that, Noorna ran to him, and while they searched together for the flea, Baba Mustapha fidgeted and worried in his seat, lurching to the right and to the left, muttering curses; and it was evident he too was persecuted, and there was no peace on the roof of that palace, but pinching and howling and stretching of limbs, and curses snarled in the throat and imprecations on the head of the tormenting flea. Surely, the soul of Kadza rejoiced, for she knew the flea was Karaz, whom she had brought with her in the loose loop of her girdle through the circle of flame which was a barrier against him. She glistened at the triumph of the flea, but Noorna strode to her, and took her to the side of the roof, and pitched her down it, and closed the passage to her. Then ran she to Karavejis and Veejravoosh, whispering in the ear of each, ‘No word of the Sword?’ and afterward aloud, ‘What think ye will be the term of the staying of my betrothed in Aklis, crowned ape?’

They answered, ‘O pearl of the morn, crowned ape till such time as Shagpat be shaved.’

So she beat her breast, crying, ‘Oh, utter stagnation, till Shagpat be shaved! and oh, stoppage in the tide of business, dense cloud upon the face of beauty, and frost on the river of events, till Shagpat be shaved! And oh! my betrothed, crowned ape in Aklis till Shagpat be shaved!’

Then she lifted her hands and arms, and said, ‘To him where he is, ye Genii! and away, for he needeth comfort.’

Thereat the glittering spirits dissolved and thinned, and were as taper gleams of curved light across the water in their ascent of the heavens. When they were gone Noorna, exclaimed, ‘Now for the dish of pomegrante grain, O Baba Mustapha, and let nothing delay us further.’

Quoth Baba Mustapha, ”Tis ordered, O my princess and fair mistress, from the confectioner’s; and with it the sleepy drug from the seller of medicaments — accursed flea!’

Now, she laughed, and said, ‘What am I, O Baba Mustapha?’

So he said, ‘Not thou, O bright shooter of beams, but I, wullahy! I’m but a bundle of points through the pertinacity of this flea! a house of irritabilities! a mere mass of fretfulness! and I’ve no thought but for the chasing of this unlucky flea: was never flea like it in the world before this flea; and ’tis a flea to anger the holy ones, and make the saintly Dervish swear at such a flea.’ He wriggled and curled where he sat, and Noorna cried, ‘What! shall we be defeated by a flea, we that would shave Shagpat, and release this city and the world from bondage?’ And she looked up to the sky that was then without a cloud, blazing with the sun on his mid seat, and exclaimed, ‘O star of Shagpat! wilt thou constantly be in the ascendant, and defeat us, the liberators of men, with a flea?’

Now, whenever one of the twain, Baba Mustapha and the Vizier Feshnavat, commenced speaking of the dish of pomegranate grain, the torment of the flea took all tongue from him, and was destruction to the gravity of council and deliberation. The dish of pomegranate grain was brought to them by slaves, and the drug to induce sleep, yet neither could say aught concerning it, they were as jointy grasshoppers through the action of the flea, and the torment of the flea became a madness, they shrieking, ”Tis now with thee! ’Tis now with me! Fires of the damned on this flea!’ In their extremity, they called to Allah for help, but no help came, save when they abandoned all speech concerning the dish of pomegranate grain, then were they for a moment eased of the flea. So Noorna recognized the presence of her enemy Karaz, and his malicious working; and she went and fetched a jar brimmed with water for the bath, and stirred it with her forefinger, and drew on it a flame from the rays of the sun till there rose up from the jar a white thick smoke. She rustled her raiment, making the wind of it collect round Baba Mustapha and Feshnavat, and did this till the sweat streamed from their brows and bodies, and they were sensible of peace and the absence of the flea. Then she whisked away the smoke, and they were attended by slaves with fresh robes, and were as new men, and sat together over the dish of pomegranate grain, praising the wisdom of Noorna and her power. Then Baba Mustapha revived in briskness, and cried, ‘Here the dish! and ’tis in my hands an instrument, an instrument of vengeance! and one to endow the skilful wielder of it with glory. And ’tis as I designed it — sweet, seasoned, savoury — a flattery to the eye and no deceiver to the palate. Wah! and such an instrument in the hands of the discerning and the dexterous, and the discreet and the judicious, and them gifted with determination, is’t not such as sufficeth for the overturning of empires and systems, O my mistress, fair one, sapphire of this city? And is’t not written that I shall beguile Shagpat by its means, and master the Event, and shame the King of Oolb and his Court? And I shall then sit in state among men, and surround myself with adornments and with slaves, mute, that speak not save at the signal, and are as statues round the cushions of their lord — that’s myself. And I shall surround myself with the flatteries of wealth, and walk bewildered in silks and stuffs and perfumeries; and sweet young beauties shall I have about me, antelopes of grace, as I like them, and select them, long-eyed, lazy, fond of listening, and with bashful looks that timidly admire the dignity that’s in man.’

While he was prating Noorna took the dish in her lap, and folded her silvery feet beneath her, and commenced whipping into it the drug: and she whipped it dexterously and with equal division among the grain, whipping it and the flea with it, but she feigned not to mark the flea and whipped harder. Then took she colour and coloured it saffron, and laid over it gold-leaf, so that it glittered and was an enticing sight; and the dish was of gold, crusted over with devices and patterns, and heads of golden monsters, a ravishment of skill in him that executed it, cumbrous with ornate golden workmanship; likewise there were places round the dish for sticks of perfume and cups carved for the storing of perfumed pellets, and into these Noorna put myrrh and ambergris and rich incenses, aloes, sandalwood, prepared essences, divers keen and sweet scents. Then when all was in readiness, she put the dish upon the knee of Baba Mustapha, and awoke him from his babbling reverie with a shout, and said, ‘An instrument verily, O Baba Mustapha! and art thou a cat to shave Shagpat with that tongue of thine?’

Now, he arose and made the sign of obedience and said, ”Tis well, O lady of grace and bright wit! and now for the cap of Shiraz and the Persian robe, and my twenty slaves and seven to follow me to the mansion of Shagpat. I’ll do: I’ll act.’

So she motioned to a slave to bring the cap of Shiraz and the Persian robe, and in these Baba Mustapha arrayed himself. Then called he for the twenty-and-seven slaves, and they were ranged, some to go before, some to follow him. And he was exalted, and made the cap of Shiraz nod in his conceit, crying, ‘Am I not leader in this complot? Wullahy! all bow to me and acknowledge it.’ Then, to check himself, he called out sternly to the slaves, ‘Ho ye! forward to the mansion of Shagpat; and pass at a slow pace through the streets of the city — solemnly, gravely, as before a potentate; then will the people inquire of ye, Who’t is ye marshal, and what mighty one? and ye will answer, He’s from the court of Shiraz, nothing less than a Vizier — bearing homage to Shagpat, even this dish of pomegranate grain.’

So they said, ‘To hear is to obey.’

Upon that he waved his hand and stalked majestically, and they descended from the roof into the street, criers running in front to clear the way. When Baba Mustapha was hidden from view by a corner of the street, Noorna shrank in her white shoulders and laughed, and was like a flashing pearl as she swayed and dimpled with laughter. And she cried, ‘True are those words of the poet, and I testify to them in the instance of Baba Mustapha:

“With feathers of the cock, I’ll fashion a vain creature;

With feathers of the owl, I’ll make a judge in feature”;

Is not the barber elate and lofty? He goeth forth to the mastery of this Event as go many, armed with nought other than their own conceit: and ’tis written:

“Fools from their fate seek not to urge:

The coxcomb carrieth his scourge.”’

So Feshnavat smoothed his face, and said, ‘Is’t not also written? —

“Oft may the fall of fools make wise men moan!

Too often hangs the house on one loose stone!”

’Tis so, O Noorna, my daughter, and I am as a reed shaken by the wind of apprehensiveness, and doubt in me is a deep root as to the issue of this undertaking, for the wrath of the King will be terrible, and the clamour of the people soundeth in my ears already. If Shibli Bagarag fail in one stroke, where be we? ’Tis certain I knew not the might in Shagpat when I strove with him, and he’s powerful beyond the measure of man’s subtlety; and yonder flies a rook without fellow — an omen; and all’s ominous, and ominous of ill: and I marked among the troop of slaves that preceded Baba Mustapha one that squinted, and that’s an omen; and, O my daughter, I counsel that thou by thy magic speed us to some remote point in the Caucasus, where we may abide the unravelling of this web securely, one way or the other way. ’Tis my counsel, O Noorna.’

Then she, ‘Abandon my betrothed? and betray him on the very stroke of the Sword? and diminish him by a withdrawal of that faith in his right wrist which strengtheneth it more than Karavejis and Veejravoosh wound round it in coils?’ And she leaned her head, and cried, ‘Hark! hear’st thou? there’s shouting in the streets of Shiraz and of Shagpat! Shall we merit the punishment of Shahpesh the Persian on Khipil the builder, while the Event is mastering? I’ll mark this interview between Baba Mustapha and Shagpat; and do thou, O my father, rest here on this roof till the King’s guard of horsemen and soldiers of the law come hither for thee, and go with them sedately, fearing nought, for I shall be by thee in the garb of an old woman; and preserve thy composure in the presence of the King and Shagpat exalted, and allow not the thing that happeneth let fly from thee the shaft of speech, but remain a slackened bow till the strength of my betrothed is testified, fearing nought, for fear is that which defeateth men, and ’tis declared in a distich —

“The strongest weapon one can see

In mortal hands is constancy.”

And for us to flee now would rank us with that King described by the poet:

“A king of Ind there was who fought a fight

From the first gleam of morn till fall of night;

But when the royal tent his generals sought,

Proclaiming victory, fled was he who fought.

Despair possessed them, till they chanced to spy

A Dervish that paced on with downward eye;

They questioned of the King; he answer’d slow,

‘Ye fought but one, the King a double, foe.”’

And, O my father, they interpreted of this that the King had been vanquished, he that was victor, by the phantom army of his fears.’

Now, the Vizier cried, ‘Be the will of Allah achieved and consummated!’ and he was silenced by her wisdom and urgency, and sat where he was, diverting not the arch on his brow from its settled furrow. He was as one that thirsteth, and whose eye hath marked a snake of swift poison by the water, so thirsted he for the Event, yet hung with dread from advancing; but Noorna bin Noorka busied herself about the roof, drawing circles to witness the track of an enemy, and she clapped her hands and cried, ‘Luloo!’ and lo, a fair slave-girl that came to her and stood by with bent head, like a white lily by a milk-white antelope; so Noorna clouded her brow a moment, as when the moon darkeneth behind a scud, and cried, ‘Speak! art thou in league with Karaz, girl?’

Luloo strained her hands to her temples, exclaiming, ‘With the terrible Genie? — I? — in league with him? my mistress, surely the charms I wear, and the amulets, I wear them as a protection from that Genie, and a safeguard, he that carrieth off the maidens and the young sucklings, walking under the curse of mothers.’

Said Noorna, ‘O Luloo, have I boxed those little ears of thine this day?’

The fair slave-girl smiled a smile of submissive tenderness, and answered, ‘Not this day, nor once since Luloo was rescued from the wicked old merchant by thy overbidding, and was taken to the arms of a wise kind sister, wiser and kinder than any she had been stolen from, she that is thy slave for ever.’

She said this weeping, and Noorna mused, ”Twas as I divined, that wretched Kadza: her grief ‘s to come!’ Then spake she aloud as to herself, ‘Knew I, or could one know, I should this day be a bride?’ And, hearing that, Luloo shrieked, ‘Thou a bride, and torn from me, and we two parted? and I, a poor drooping tendril, left to wither? for my life is round thee and worthless away from thee, O cherisher of the fallen flower.’

And she sobbed out wailful verses and words, broken and without a meaning; but Noorna caught her by the arm and swung her, and bade her fetch on the instant a robe of blue, and pile in her chamber robes of amber and saffron and grey, bridal-robes of many-lighted silks, plum-coloured, peach-coloured, of the colour of musk mixed with pale gold, together with bridal ornaments and veils of the bride, and a jewelled circlet for the brow. When this was done, Noorna went with Luloo to her chamber, attended by slave-girls, and arrayed herself in the first dress of blue, and swayed herself before the mirror, and rattled the gold pieces in her hair and on her neck with laughter. And Luloo was bewildered, and forgot her tears to watch the gaiety of her mistress; and lo! Noorna, made her women take off one set of ornaments with every dress, and with every dress she put on another set; and after she had gone the round of the different dresses, she went to the bathroom with Luloo, and at her bidding Luloo entered the bath beside Noorna, and the twain dipped and shouldered in the blue water, and were as when a single star is by the full moon on a bright midnight pouring lustre about. And Noorna splashed Luloo, and said, ‘This night we shall not sleep together, O Luloo, nor lie close, thy bosom on mine.’

Thereat, Luloo wept afresh, and cried, ‘Ah, cruel! and ’tis a sweet thought for thee, and thou’lt have no mind for me, tossing on my hateful lonely couch.’

Tenderly Noorna eyed Luloo, and the sprinkles of the bath fell with the tears of both, and they clung together, and were like the lily and its bud on one stalk in a shower. Then, when Noorna had spent her affection, she said, ‘O thou of the long downward lashes, thy love was constant when I stood under a curse and was an old woman — a hag! Carest thou so little to learn the name of him that claimeth me?’

Luloo replied, ‘I thought of no one save myself and my loss, O my lost pearl; happy is he, a youth of favour. Oh, how I shall hate him that taketh thee from me. Tell me now his name, O sovereign of hearts!’

So Noorna smoothed the curves and corners of her mouth and calmed her countenance, crying in a deep tone and a voice as of reverence, ‘Shagpat!’

Now, at that name Luloo drank in her breath and was awed, and sank in herself, and had just words to ask, ‘Hath he demanded thee again in marriage, O my mistress?’

Said Noorna, ‘Even so.’

Luloo muttered, ‘Great is the Dispenser of our fates!’

And she spake no further, but sighed and took napkins and summoned the slave-girls, and arrayed Noorna silently in the robe of blue and bridal ornaments. Then Noorna said to them that thronged about her, ‘Put on, each of ye, a robe of white, ye that are maidens, and a fillet of blue, and a sash of saffron, and abide my coming.’

And she said to Luloo, ‘Array thyself in a robe of blue, even as mine, and let trinkets lurk in thy tresses, and abide my coming.’

Then went she forth from them, and veiled her head and swathed her figure in raiment of a coarse white stuff, and was as the moon going behind a hill of dusky snow; and she left the house, and passed along the streets and by the palaces, till she came to the palace of her father, now filled by Shagpat. Before the palace grouped a great concourse and a multitude of all ages and either sex in that city, despite the blaze and the heat. Like roaring of a sea beyond the mountains was the noise that issued from them, and their eyes were a fire of beams against the portal of the palace. Now, she saw in the crowd one Shafrac, a shoemaker, and addressed him, saying, ‘O Shafrac, the shoemaker, what’s this assembly and how got together? for the poet says:

“Ye string not such assemblies in the street,

Save when some high Event should be complete.”’

He answered, ”Tis an Event complete. Wullahy! the deputation from Shiraz to Shagpat, and the submission of that vain city to the might of Shagpat.’ And he asked her, jestingly, ‘Art thou a witch, to guess that, O veiled and virtuous one?’

Quoth she, ‘I read the thing that cometh ere ’tis come, and I read danger to Shagpat in this deputation from Shiraz, and this dish of pomegranate grain.’

So Shafrac cried, ‘By the beard of my fathers and that of Shagpat! let’s speak of this to Zeel, the garlic-seller.’

He broadened to one that was by him, and said, ‘O Zeel, what’s thy mind? Here’s a woman, a wise woman, a witch, and she sees danger to Shagpat in this deputation from Shiraz and this dish of pomegranate grain.’

Now, Zeel screwed his visage and gazed up into his forehead, and said, ”Twere best to consult with Bootlbac, the drum-beater.’

The two then called to Bootlbac, the drum-beater, and told him the matter, and Bootlbac pondered, and tapped his brow and beat on his stomach, and said, ‘Krooz el Krazawik, the carrier, is good in such a case.’

Now, from Krooz el Krazawik, the carrier, they went to Dob, the confectioner; and from Dob, the confectioner, to Azawool, the builder; and from Azawool, the builder, to Tcheik, the collector of taxes; and each referred to some other, till perplexity triumphed and was a cloud over them, and the words, ‘Danger to Shagpat,’ went about like bees, and were canvassing, when suddenly a shrill voice rose from the midst, dominating other voices, and it was that of Kadza, and she cried, ‘Who talks here of danger to Shagpat, and what wretch is it?’

Now, Tcheik pointed out Azawool, and Azawool Dob, and Dob Krooz el Krazawik, and he Bootlbac, and the drum-beater shrugged his shoulder at Zeel, and Zeel stood away from Shafrac, and Shafrac seized Noorna and shouted, ”Tis she, this woman, the witch!’

Kadza fronted Noorna, and called to her, ‘O thing of infamy, what’s this talk of thine concerning danger to our glory, Shagpat?’

Then Noorna replied, ‘I say it, O Kadza! and I say it; there’s danger threateneth him, and from that deputation and that dish of pomegranate grain.’

Now, Kadza laughed a loose laugh, and jeered at Noorna, crying, ‘Danger to Shagpat! he that’s attended by Genii, and watched over by the greatest of them, day and night incessantly?’

And Noorna said, ‘I ask pardon of the Power that seeth, and of thee, if I be wrong. Wah! am I not also of them that watch over Shagpat? So then let thou and I go into the palace and examine the doings of this deputation and this dish of pomegranate grain.’

Now, Kadza remembered the scene on the roofs of the Vizier Feshnavat, and relaxed in her look of suspicion, and said, ”Tis well! Let’s in to them.’

Thereupon the twain threaded through the crowd and locked at the portals of the palace, and it was opened to them and they entered, and lo! the hand that opened the portals was the hand of a slave of the Sword, and against corners of the Court leaned slaves silly with slumber. So Kadza went up to them, and beat them, and shook them, and they yawned and mumbled, ‘Excellent grain! good grain! the grain of Shiraz!’ And she beat them with what might was hers, till some fell sideways and some forward, still mumbling, ‘Excellent pomegranate grain!’ Kadza was beside herself with anger and vexation at them, tearing them and cuffing them; but Noorna cried, ‘O Kadza! what said I? there’s danger to Shagpat in this dish of pomegranate grain! and what’s that saying:

“’Tis much against the Master’s wish

That slaves too greatly praise his dish.”

Wullahy! I like not this talk of the grain of Shiraz.’

Now, while Noorna spake, the eyes of Kadza became like those of the starved wild-cat, and she sprang off and along the marble of the Court, and clawed a passage through the air and past the marble pillars of the palace toward the first room of reception, Noorna following her. And in the first room were slaves leaning and lolling like them about the Court, and in the second room and in the third room, silent all of them and senseless. So at this sight the spark of suspicion became a mighty flame in the bosom of Kadza, and horror burst out at all ends of her, and she shuddered, and cried, ‘What for us, and where’s our hope if Shagpat be shorn, and he lopped of the Identical, shamed like the lion of my dream!’

And Noorna clasped her hands, and said, ”Tis that I fear! Seek for him, O Kadza!’

So Kadza ran to a window and looked forth over the garden of the palace, and it was a fair garden with the gleam of a fountain and watered plants and cool arches of shade, thick bowers, fragrant alleys, long sheltered terraces, and beyond the garden a summer-house of marble fanned by the broad leaves of a palm. Now, when Kadza had gazed a moment, she shrieked, ‘He’s there! Shagpat! giveth he not the light of a jewel to the house that holdeth him? Awahy! and he’s witched there for an ill purpose.’

Then tore she from that room like a mad wild thing after its stolen cubs, and sped along corridors of the palace, and down the great flight of steps into the garden and across the garden, knocking over the ablution-pots in her haste; and Noorna had just strength to withhold her from dashing through the doors of the summer-house to come upon Shagpat, she straining and crying, ‘He’s there, I say, O wise woman! Shagpat! let’s into him.’

But Noorna clung to her, and spake in her ear, ‘Wilt thou blow the fire that menaces him, O Kadza? and what are two women against the assailants of such a mighty one as he?’ Then said she, ‘Watch, rather, and avail thyself of yonder window by the blue-painted pillar.’

So Kadza crept up to the blue-painted pillar which was on the right side of the porch, and the twain peered through the window. Noorna beheld the Dish of Pomegranate Grain; and it was on the floor, empty of the grain, and Baba Mustapha was by it alone making a lather, and he was twitching his mouth and his legs, and flinging about his arms, and Noorna heard him mutter wrathfully, ‘O accursed flea! art thou at me again?’ And she heard him mutter as in anguish, ‘No peace for thee, O pertinacious flea! and my steadiness of hand will be gone, now when I have him safe as the hawk his prey, mine enemy, this Shagpat that abused me: thou abominable flea! And, O thou flea, wilt thou, vile thing! hinder me from mastering the Event, and releasing this people and the world from enchantment and bondage? And shall I fail to become famous to the ages and the times because of such as thee, flea?’

So Kadza whispered to Noorna, ‘What’s that he’s muttering? Is’t of Shagpat? for I mark him not here, nor the light by which he’s girt.’

She answered, ‘Listen with the ear and the eye and all the senses.’

Now, presently they heard Baba Mustapha say in a louder tone, like one that is secure from interruption, ‘Two lathers, and this the third! a potent lather! and I wot there’s not a hair in this world resisteth the sweep of my blade over such a lather as — Ah! flea of iniquity and abomination! what! am I doomed to thy torments? — so let’s spread! Lo! this lather, is’t not the pride of Shiraz? and the polish and smoothness it sheddeth, is’t not roseate? my invention! as the poet says — O accursed flea! now the knee-joint, now the knee-cap, and ’tis but a hop for thee to the arm-pit. Fires of the pit without bottom seize thee! is no place sacred from thee, and art thou a restless soul, infernal flea? So then, peace awhile, and here’s for the third lather.’

While he was speaking Baba Mustapha advanced to a large white object that sat motionless, upright like a snow-mound on a throne of cushions, and commenced lathering. When she saw that, Kadza tossed up her head and her throat, and a shriek was coming from her, for she was ware of Shagpat; but Noorna stifled the shriek, and clutched her fast, whispering, ‘He’s safe if thou have but patience, thou silly Kadza! and the flea will defeat this fellow if thou spoil it not.’

So Kadza said, looking up, ‘Is ’t seen of Allah, and be the Genii still in their depths?’ but she constrained herself, peering and perking out her chin, and lifting one foot and the other foot, as on furnaces of fire in the excess of the fury she smothered. And lo, Baba Mustapha worked diligently, and Shagpat was behind an exulting lather, even as one pelted with wheaten flour-balls or balls of powdery perfume, and his hairiness was as branches of the forest foliage bent under a sudden fall of overwhelming snow that filleth the pits and sharpeneth the wolves with hunger, and teacheth new cunning to the fox. A fox was Baba Mustapha in his stratagems, and a wolf in the fierceness of his setting upon Shagpat. Surely he drew forth the blade that was to shear Shagpat, and made with it in the air a preparatory sweep and flourish; and the blade frolicked and sent forth a light, and seemed eager for Shagpat. So Baba Mustapha addressed his arm to the shearing, and inclined gently the edge of the blade, and they marked him let it slide twice to a level with the head of Shagpat, and at the third time it touched, and Kadza howled, but from Baba Mustapha there burst a howl to madden the beasts; and he flung up his blade, and wrenched open his robe, crying, ‘A flea was it to bite in that fashion? Now, I swear by the Merciful, a fang like that’s common to tigers and hyaenas and ferocious animals.’

Then looked he for the mark of the bite, plaining of its pang, and he could find the mark nowhere. So, as he caressed himself, eyeing Shagpat sheepishly and with gathering awe, Noorna said hurriedly to Kadza, ‘Away now, and call them in, the crowd about the palace, that they may behold the triumph of Shagpat, for ’tis ripe, O Kadza!’

And Kadza replied, ‘Thou’rt a wise woman, and I’ll have thee richly rewarded. Lo, I’m as a camel lightened of fifty loads, and the glory of Shagpat see I as a new sun rising in the desert. Wullahy! thou’rt wise, and I’ll do thy bidding.’

Now, she went flying back to the palace, and called shrill calls to the crowd, and collected them in the palace, and headed them through the garden, and it was when Baba Mustapha had summoned courage for a second essay, and was in the act of standing over Shagpat to operate on him, that the crowd burst the doors, and he was quickly seized by them, and tugged at and hauled at and pummelled, and torn and vituperated, and as a wrecked vessel on stormy waters, plunging up and down with tattered sails, when the crew fling overboard freight and ballast and provision. Surely his time would have been short with that mob, but Noorna made Kadza see the use of examining him before the King, and there were in that mob sheikhs and fakirs, holy men who listened to the words of Kadza, and exerted themselves to rescue Baba Mustapha, and quieted the rage that was prevailing, and bore Baba Mustapha with them to the great palace of the King, which was in the centre of that City. Now, when the King heard of the attempt on Shagpat, and the affair of the Pomegranate Grain, he gave orders for the admission of the people, as many of them as could be contained in the Hall of Justice: and he set a guard over Baba Mustapha, and commanded that Shagpat should be brought to the palace even as he then was, and with the lather on him. So the regal mandate went forth, and Shagpat was brought in state on cushions, and the potency of the drug preserved his sedateness through all this, and he remained motionless in sleep, folded in the centre of calm and satisfaction, while this tumult was rageing and the City shook with uproar. But the people, when they saw him whitened behind a lather, wrath at Baba Mustapha’s polluting touch and the audacity of barbercraft wrestled in them with the outpouring of reverence for Shagpat, and a clamour arose for the instant sacrifice of Baba Mustapha at the foot of their idol Shagpat. And the whole of the City of Shagpat, men, women, and children, and the sheikhs and the dervishes and crafts of the City besieged the King’s palace in that middle hour of the noon, clamouring for the sacrifice of Baba Mustapha at the feet of their idol Shagpat.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/m/meredith/george/shaving-of-shagpat/chapter21.html

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