The Shaving of Shagpat, by George Meredith

The Burning of the Identical

Now, the Great Hall for the dispensing of justice in the palace of the King was one on which the architect and the artificers had lavished all their arts and subtleties of design and taste and their conceptions of uniformity and grandeur, so that none entered it without a sense of abasement, and the soul acknowledged awfulness and power in him that ruled and sat eminent on the throne of that Hall. For, lo! the throne was of solid weighty gold, overhung with rich silks and purples; and the hall was lofty, with massive pillars, fifty on either side, ranging in stateliness down toward the blaze of the throne; and the pillars were pillars of porphyry and of jasper and precious marble, carven over all of them with sentences of the cunningest wisdom, distichs of excellence, odes of the poet, stanzas sharp with the incisiveness of wit, and that solve knotty points with but one stroke; and these pillars were each the gift of a mighty potentate of earth or of a Genie.

In the centre of the Hall a fountain set up a glittering jet, and spread abroad the breath of freshness, leaping a height of sixty feet, and shimmering there in a wide bright canopy with dropping silver sides. It was rumoured of the waters of this fountain that they were fed underground from the waters of the Sacred River, brought there in the reign of El Rasoon, a former sovereign in the City of Shagpat, by the labours of Zak — a Genie subject to the magic of Azrooka, the Queen of El Rasoon; but, of a surety, none of earth were like to them in silveriness and sweet coolingness, and they were as wine to the weary.

Now, the King sat on his throne in the Hall, and around him his ministers, and Emirs, and chamberlains, and officers of state, and black slaves, and the soldiers of his guard armed with naked scimitars. And the King was as a sun in splendour, severely grave, and a frown on his forehead to darken kingdoms, for the attempt on Shagpat had stirred his kingly wrath, and awakened zeal for the punishment of all conspirators and offenders. So when Shagpat was borne in to the King upon his throne of cushions where he sat upright, smiling and inanimate, the King commanded that he should be placed at his side, the place of honour; and Shagpat was as a moon behind the whiteness of the lathers; even as we behold moon and sun together in the heavens, was Shagpat by the King.

There was great hubbub in the Hall at the entrance of Shagpat, and a hum of rage and muttered vehemence passed among the assembled people that filled the hall like a cavern of the sea, the sea roaring outside; but presently the King spake, and all hushed. Then said he, ‘O people! thought I to see a day that would shame Shagpat? he that has brought honour and renown upon me and all of this city, so that we shine a constellation and place of pilgrimage to men in remote islands and corners of the earth? Yea! and to Afrites and Genii? Have I not castigated barbers, and brought barbercraft to degradation, so that no youth is taught to exercise it? And through me the tackle of the barber, is’t not a rusty and abominated weapon, and as a sword thrown by and broken, for that it dishonoured us? Surely, too, I have esteemed Shagpat precious.’

While he spake, the King gazed on Shagpat, and was checked by passion at beholding him under the lather, so that the people praised Shagpat and the King. Then said he, ‘O people, who shall forecast disasters and triumphs? Lo, I had this day at dawn intelligence from recreant Oolb, and its King and Court, and of their return to do honour to Shagpat! And I had this day at dawn tidings, O people, from Shiraz, and of the adhesion of that vain city and its provinces to the might of Shagpat! So commenced the day, yet is he, the object of the world’s homage, within a few hours defiled by a lather and the hand of an impious one!’

At these words of the King there rose a shout of vindictiveness and fury; but he cried, ‘Punishment on the offenders in season, O people! Probably we have not abased ourselves for the honour that has befallen us in Shagpat, and the distinction among nations and tribes and races, and creeds and sects, that we enjoy because of Shagpat. Behold! in abasement voluntarily undertaken there is exceeding brightness and exaltation; for how is the sun a sun save that daily he dippeth in darkness, to rise again freshly majestic? So then, be mine the example, O people of the City of Shagpat!’

Thereupon lo, the King descended from his throne, and stripped to the loins, flinging away his glittering crown and his robes, and abased himself to the dust with loud cries and importunities and howls, and penitential ejaculations and sobbings; and it was in that Hall as when the sun goeth down in storm. Likewise the ministers of the King, and the Viziers and Emirs and officers of state, and slaves, and soldiers of the guard, bared their limbs, and fell beside the King with violent outcries and wailings; and the whole of the people in the Hall prostrated their bodies with wailings and lamentations. And Baba Mustapha feigned to bewail himself, and Noorna bin Noorka knelt beside Kadza, and shrieked loudest, striking her breast and scattering her hair; and that Hall was as a pit full of serpents writhing, and of tigers and lions and wild beasts howling, each pitching his howl a note above his neighbours, so that the tone rose and sank, and there was no one soul erect in that Hall save Shagpat, he on his throne of cushions smiling behind the lathers, inanimate, serene as they that sin not. After an hour’s lapse there came a pause, and the people hearkened for the voice of the King; but in the intervals a louder moan would strike their ears, and they whispered among themselves, ”Tis that of the fakir, El Zoop!’ and the moaning and howling prevailed again. And again they heard another moan, a deep one, as of the earth in its throes, and said among themselves, ”Tis that of Bootlbac, the drumbeater!’ and this led off to the howl of Areep, the dervish; and this was followed by the shriek of Zeel, the garlic-seller; and the waul of Krooz el Krazawik, the carrier; and the complainings of Dob, the confectioner; and the groan of Sallap, the broker; and the yell of Azawool, the builder. There would have been no end to it known; but the King rose and commenced plucking his beard and his hair — they likewise in silence. When he had performed this ceremony a space, the King called, and a basin of water was brought to him, and handed round by slaves, and all dipped in it their hands, and renewed their countenances and rearranged their limbs; and the Hall brightened with the eye of the King, and he cried, ‘O people, lo, the plot is revealed to me, and ’tis a deep one; but, by this beard, we’ll strike at the root of it, and a blow of deadliness. Surely we have humiliated ourselves, and vengeance is ours! How say ye?’

A noise like the first sullen growl of a vexed wild beast which telleth that fury is fast travelling and the teeth will flash, followed these words; and the King called to his soldiers of the guard, ‘Ho! forth with this wretch that dared defile Shagpat, the holy one! and on your heads be it to fetch hither Feshnavat, the son of Feil, that was my Vizier, he that was envious of Shagpat, and whom we spared in our clemency.’

Some of the guard went from the Hall to fulfil the King’s injunction on Feshnavat, others thrust forth Baba Mustapha in the eyes of the King. Baba Mustapha was quaking as a frog quaketh for water, and he trembled and was a tongueless creature deserted of his lower limbs, and with eyeballs goggling, through exceeding terror. Now, when the King saw him, he contracted his brows as one that peereth on a small and minute object, crying, ‘How! is’t such as he, this monster of audaciousness and horrible presumption? Truly ’tis said:

“For ruin and the deeds preluding change,

Fear not great Beasts, nor Eagles when they range:

But dread the crawling worm or pismire mean,

Satan selects them, for they are unseen.”

And this wretch is even of that sort, the select of Satan! Off with the top of the reptile, and away with him!’

Now, at the issue of the mandate Baba Mustapha choked, and horror blocked the throat of confession in him, so that he did nought save stagger imploringly; but the prompting of Noorna sent Kadza to the foot of the throne, and Kadza bent her body and exclaimed, ‘O King of the age! ’tis Kadza, the espoused of Shagpat thy servant, that speaketh; and lo! a wise woman has said in my ear, “How if this emissary and instrument of the Evil One, this barber, this filthy fellow, be made to essay on Shagpat before the people his science and his malice? for ’tis certain that Shagpat is surrounded where he sitteth by Genii invisible, defended by them, and no harm can hap to him, but an illumination of glory and triumph manifest”: and for this barber, his punishment can afterwards be looked to, O great King!’

The King mused awhile and sank in his beard. Then said he to them that had hold of Baba Mustapha watching for the signal, ‘I have thought over it, and the means of bringing double honour on the head of Shagpat. So release this fellow, and put in his hands the tackle taken from him.’

This was done, and the people applauded the wisdom of the King, and crowded forward with sharpness of expectation; but Baba Mustapha, when he felt in his hands the tackle, the familiar instruments, strength and wit returned to him in petty measures, and he thought, ‘Perchance there’ll yet be time for my nephew to strike, if he fail me not; fool that I was to look for glory, and not leave the work to him, for this Shagpat is a mighty one, powerful in fleas, and it needeth something other than tackle to combat such as he. A mighty one, said I? by Allah, he’s awful in his mightiness!’

So Baba Mustapha kept delaying, and feigned to sharpen the blade, and the King called to him, ‘Haste! to the work! is it for thee, vile wretch, to make preparation for the accursed thing in our presence?’ And the people murmured and waxed impatient, and the King called again, ‘Thou’lt essay this, thou wretch, without a head, let but another minute pass.’ So when Baba Mustapha could delay no longer, he sighed heavily and his trembling returned, and the power of Shagpat smote him with an invisible hand, so that he could scarce move; but dread pricked him against dread, and he advanced upon Shagpat to shear him, and assumed the briskness of the barber, and was in the act of bending over him to bring the blade into play, when, behold, one of the chamberlains of the King stood up in the presence and spake a word that troubled him, and the King rose and hurried to a balcony looking forth on the Desert, and on three sides of the Desert three separate clouds of dust were visible, and from these clouds presently emerged horsemen with spears and pennons and plumes; and he could discern the flashing of their helms and the glistening of steel-plates and armour of gold and silver. Seeing this, the colour went from the cheeks of the King and his face became as a pinched pomegranate, and he cried aloud, ‘What visitation’s this? Awahy! we are beset, and here’s abasement brought on us without self-abasing!’ Meantime these horsemen detached themselves from the main bodies and advanced at a gallop, wheeling and circling round each other, toward the walls of the city, and when they were close they lowered their arms and made signs of amity, and proclaimed their mission and the name of him they served. So tidings were brought to the King that the Lords of three cities, with vast retinues, were come, by reason of a warning, to pay homage to Shagpat, the son of Shimpoor; and these three cities were the cities of Oolb, and of Gaf, and of Shiraz, even these!

Now, when the King heard of it, he rejoiced with an exceeding joy, and arrayed himself in glory, and mounted a charger, the pride of his stables, and rode out to meet the Lords of the three cities surrounded by the horsemen of his guard. And it was within half-a-mile of the city walls that the four sovereigns met, and dismounted and saluted and embraced, and bestowed on one another kingly flatteries, and the titles of Cousin and Brother. So when the unctions of Royalty were over, these three Kings rode back to the city with the King that was their host, and the horsemen of the three kingdoms pitched their tents and camped outside the walls, making cheer. Then the King of the City of Shagpat related to the three Kings the story of Shagpat and the attempt that had been made on him; and in the great Hall of Justice he ordained the erecting of thrones for them whereon to sit; and they, when they had paid homage to Shagpat, sat by him there on either side. Then the King cried, ‘This likewise owe we to Shagpat, our glory! See, now, how the might that’s in him shall defeat the machinations of evil, O my cousins of Oolb, and of Gaf, and of Shiraz.’ Thereupon he called, ‘Bring forth the barber!’

So Baba Mustapha was thrust forth by the soldiers of the guard; and the King of Shiraz, who was no other than the great King Shahpushan, exclaimed, when he beheld Baba Mustapha, ‘He? why, it is the prince of barbers and talkative ones! Hath he not operated on my head, the head of me in old time? Truly now, if it be in man to shave Shagpat, the hand of this barber will do it!’

And the King of Oolb peered on Baba Mustapha, crying, ‘Even this fellow I bastinadoed!’

And the King of Gaf, that was Kresnuk, famous in the annals of the time, said aloud, ‘I’m amazed at the pertinacity of this barber! To my court he came, searching some silly nephew, and would have shaved us all in spite of our noses; yea, talked my chief Vizier into a dead sleep, and so thinned him. And there was no safety from him save in thongs and stripes and lashes!’

Now, upon that the King of the City cried, ‘Be the will of Allah achieved, and the inviolacy of Shagpat made manifest! Thou barber, thou! do thy worst to contaminate him, and take the punishment in store for thee. And if it is written thou succeed, then keep thy filthy life: small chance of that!’

Baba Mustapha remembered the poet’s words:

The abyss is worth a leap, however wide,

When life, sweet life, is on the other side.

And he controlled himself to the mastery of his members, and stepped forward to essay once more the Shaving of Shagpat. Lo, the great Hall was breathless, nought heard save the splashing of the fountain in its fall, and the rustle of the robe of Baba Mustapha as he aired his right arm, hovering round Shagpat like a bird about the nest; and he was buzzing as a bee ere it entereth the flower, and quivered like a butterfly when ’tis fluttering over a blossom; and Baba Mustapha sniffed at Shagpat within arm’s reach, fearing him, so that the people began to hum with a great rapture, and the King Shahpushan cried, ‘Aha! mark him! this monkey knoweth the fire!’

But the King of the City of Shagpat was wroth, and commanded his guards to flourish their scimitars, and the keen light cut the chords of indecision in Baba Mustapha, and drove him upon Shagpat with a dash of desperation; and lo! he stretched his hand and brought down the blade upon the head of Shagpat. Then was the might of Shagpat made manifest, for suddenly in his head the Identical rose up straight, even to a level with the roof of that hall, burning as it had been an angry flame of many fiery colours, and Baba Mustapha was hurled from him a great space like a ball that reboundeth, and he was twisting after the fashion of envenomed serpents, sprawling and spurning, and uttering cries of horror. Surely, to see that sight the four Kings and the people bit their forefingers, and winked till the water stood in their eyes, and Kadza, turning about, exclaimed, ‘This owe we to the wise woman! where lurketh she?’ So she called about the hall, ‘wise woman! wise woman!’

Now, when she could find Noorna bin Noorka nowhere in that crowd, she shrieked exultingly, ”Twas a Genie! Wullahy! all Afrites, male and female, are in the service of Shagpat, my light, my eyes, my sun! I his moon!’

Meantime the King of the City called to Baba Mustapha, ‘Hast thou had enough of barbering, O vile one? Ho! a second essay on the head of Shagpat! so shall the might that’s in him be indisputable, bruited abroad, and a great load upon the four winds.’

Now, Baba Mustapha was persuaded by the scimitars of the guard to a second essay on the head of Shagpat, and the second time he was shot away from Shagpat through the crowd and great assemblage to the extreme end of the hall, where he lay writhing about, abandoned in loathliness; and he in his despondency, and despite of protestation and the slackness of his limbs, was pricked again by the scimitars of the guard to a third essay on the head of Shagpat, the people jeering at him, for they were joyous, light of heart; and lo! the third time he was shot off violently, and whirled away like a stone from a sling, even into the outer air and beyond the city walls, into the distance of waste places. And now a great cry rose from the people, as it were a song of triumph, for the Identical stood up wrathfully from the head of Shagpat, burning in brilliance, blinding to look on, he sitting inanimate beneath it; and it waxed in size and pierced through the roof of the hall, and was a sight to the streets of the city; and the horsemen camped without the walls beheld it, and marvelled, and it was as a pillar of fire to the solitudes of the Desert afar, and the wild Arab and wandering Bedouins and caravans of pilgrimage. Distant cities asked the reason of that appearance, and the cunning fakir interpreted it, and the fervent dervish expounded from it, and messengers flew from gate to gate and from land to land in exultation, and barbers hid their heads, and were friendly with the fox in his earth, because of that light. So the Identical burned on the head of Shagpat as in wrath, and with exceeding splendour of attraction, three nights and three days; and the fishes of the sea shoaled to the sea’s surface and stared at it, and the fowls of the air congregated about the fury of the light with screams and mad flutters, till the streets and mosques and minarets and bright domes and roofs and cupolas of the City of Shagpat were blackened with scorched feathers of the vulture and the eagle and the rook and the raven and the hawk, and other birds, sacred and obscene; so was the triumph of Shagpat made manifest to men and the end of the world by the burning of the Identical three days and three nights.

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