The Shaving of Shagpat, by George Meredith

The Flashes of the Blade

Now, it was the morning of the fourth day, and lo! at the first leap of the sun of that day the flame of the Identical abated in its fierceness, and it dwindled and darkened, and tapered and flickered feebly, descending from its altitude in the heavens and through the ceiling of the Hall, and lay down to sleep among the intricate lengths and frizzled convolutions and undulating weights flowing from Shagpat, an undistinguished hair, even as the common hairs of his head. So, upon that, the four fasting Kings breathed, and from the people of the City there went up a mighty shout of gladness and congratulation at the glory they had witnessed; and they took the air deeply into their chests, and were as divers that have been long fathoms-deep under water, and ascend and puff hard and press the water from their eyes, that yet refuse to acknowledge with a recognition the things that be and the sights above, so mazed are they with those unmentionable marvels and treasures and profusion of jewels, and splendid lazy growths and lavish filmy illuminations, and multitudinous pearls and sheering shells, that lie heaped in the beds of the ocean. As the poet has said:

After too strong a beam,

Too bright a glory,

We ask, Is this a dream

Or magic story?

And he says:

When I’ve had rapturous visions such as make

The sun turn pale, and suddenly awake,

Long must I pull at memory in this beard,

Ere I remember men and things revered.

So was it with the people of the City, and they stood in the Hall and winked staringly at one another, shouting and dancing at intervals, capering with mad gravity, exclaiming on the greatness of that they had witnessed. And Zeel the garlic-seller fell upon Mob the confectioner, and cried, ‘Was this so, O Dob? Wullahy! this glory, was it verily?’ And Dob peered dimly upon Zeel, whispering solemnly, ‘Say, now, art thou of a surety that Zeel the garlic-seller known to me, my boon-fellow?’ And the twain turned to Sallap the broker, and exchanged interjections with him, and with Azawool the builder, and with Krooz el Krazawik the carrier; and they accosted Bootlbac the drum-beater, where he stood apart, drumming the air as to a march of triumph, and no word would he utter, neither to Zeel, nor to Sallap, nor to Krooz el Krazawik, nor to Azawool his neighbour, nor to any present, but continued drumming on the air rapidly as in answer, increasing in the swiftness of his drumming till it was a rage to mark him, and the excitement about Bootlbac became as a mad eddy in the midst of a mighty stream, he drumming the air with exceeding swiftness to various measures, beating before him as on the tightened skin, lost to all presences save the Identical and Shagpat. So they edged away from Bootlbac in awe, saying, ‘He’s inspired, Bootlbac! ’tis the triumph of Shagpat he drummeth.’ They feigned to listen to him till their ears deceived them, and they rejoiced in the velocity of the soundless tune of Bootlbac the drum-beater, and were stirred by it, excited to a forgetfulness of their fasting. Such was the force of the inspiration of Bootlbac the drum-beater, caused by the burning of the Identical.

Now, the four Kings, when they had mastered their wits, gazed in silence on Shagpat, and sighed and shook their heads, and were as they that have swallowed a potent draught and ponder sagely over the gulp. Surely, the visages of the Kings of Shiraz and of Gaf and of Oolb betokened dread of Shagpat and amazement at him; but the King of the City exulted, and the shining of content was on his countenance, and he cried, ‘Wondrous!’ and again, ‘Wullahy, wondrous!’ and ‘Oh, glory!’ And he laughed and clucked and chuckled, and the triumph of Shagpat was to him as a new jewel in his crown outshining all others, and he was for awhile as the cock smitten with the pride of his comb, the peacock magnified by admiration of his tail. Then he cried, ‘For this, praise we Allah and the Prophet. Wullahy, ’twas wondrous!’ and he went off again into a roll of cluckings and chucklings and exclamations of delight, crying, ‘Need they further proof of the power in Shagpat now? Has he not manifested it? So true is that saying —

“The friend that flattereth weakeneth at length;

It is the foe that calleth forth our strength.”

Wondrous! and never knew earth a thing to equal it in the range of marvels!’

Now, ere the last word was spoken by the King, there passed through the sky a mighty flash. Those in the Hall saw it, and the horsemen of the three cities encamped without the walls were nigh blinded by the keenness of its blaze. So they looked into the height, and saw straight over the City a speck of cloud, but no thunder came from it; and the King cried, ‘These be Genii! the issue of this miracle is yet to come! look for it, and exult.’ Then he turned to the other Kings, but they were leaning to right and left in their seats, as do the intoxicated, without strength to answer his questioning. So he exclaimed, ‘A curse on my head! have I forgotten the laws of hospitality? my cousins are famished!’ He was giving orders for the spreading of a sumptuous banquet when there passed through the sky another mighty flash. They awaited the thunder this time confidently, yet none came. Suddenly the King exclaimed, ”Tis the wrath of Shagpat that his assailants remain uncastigated!’ Then cried he to the eunuchs of the guard, ‘Hither with Feshnavat, the son of Feil!’ And the King said to Feshnavat, ‘Thou plotter! envious of Shagpat!’ Here the King, Kresnuk, fell forward at the feet of Shagpat from sheer inanition, and the King of the City ordered instantly wines and viands to be brought into the Hall, and commenced saying to Feshnavat, in the words of the wise entablature:

‘“Of reckless mercy thus the Sage declared:

More culpable the sparer than the spared;

For he that breaks one law, breaks one alone:

But who thwarts Justice flouts Law’s sovereign throne.”

And have I not been over-merciful in thy case?’

As the King was haranguing Feshnavat, his nostril took in the steam of the viands and the fresh odours of the wines, and he could delay no longer to satisfy his craving, but caught up the goblet, and drank from it till his visage streamed the tears of contentment. Lo, while he put forth his hand tremblingly, as to continue the words of his condemnation of the Vizier, the heavens were severed by a third flash, one exceeding in fierceness the other flashes; and now the Great Hall rocked, and the pillars and thrones trembled, and the eyes of Shagpat opened. He made no motion, but sat like a wonder of stone, looking before him. Surely, Kadza shrieked, and rushed forward to him from the crowd, yet he said nothing, and was as one frozen. So the King cried, ‘He waketh! the flashes preceded his wakening! Now shall he see the vengeance of kings on his enemies.’ Thereupon he made a signal, and the scimitars of the guard were in air over the head of Feshnavat, when darkness as of the dropping of night fell upon all, and the darkness spake, saying, ‘I am Abarak of the Bar, preceder of the Event!’

Then it was light, but the ears of every soul present were pierced with the wailing of wild animals, and on all sides from the Desert hundreds of them were seen making toward the City, some swiftly, others at a heavy pace; and when they were come near they crouched and fawned, and dropped their dry tongues as in awe. There was the serpent, meek as before the days of sin, and the leopard slinking to get among the legs of men, and the lion came trundling along in utter flabbiness, raising not his head. Soon the streets were thronged with elephants and lions and sullen tigers, and wild cats and wolves, not a tail erect among them: great was the marvel! So the King cried, ‘We’re in the thick of wonders; banquet we lightly while they increase upon us! What’s yonder little man?’ This was Abarak that stood before the King, and exclaimed, ‘I am the darkness that announceth the mastery of the Event, as a shadow before the sun’s approach, and it is the Shaving of Shagpat!’ The world darkened before the eyes of the King when he heard this, and in a moment Abarak was clutched by the soldiers of the guard, and dragged beside Feshnavat to await the final blow; and this would have parted two heads from two bodies at one stroke, but now Noorna bin Noorka entered the hall, veiled and in the bright garb of a bride, with veiled attendants about her, and the people opened to give her passage to the throne of the King. So she said, ‘Delay the stroke yet awhile, O Head of the Magnanimous! I am she claimed by Shagpat; surely, I am bride of him that is Master of the Event, and the hour of bridals is the hour of clemency.’

The King looked at Shagpat, perplexed; but the eye of Shagpat gazed as into the distance of another world. Then said he, ‘We shall hear nought from the mouth of Shagpat till he is avenged, and till then he is silent with exceeding wrath.’ Hearing this, Noorna ran quickly to a window of the Hall, and let loose a white dove from her bosom.

Then came there that flash which is recorded in old traditions as the fourth of the flashes of thunderless lightnings, after the passing of which, hundreds of fakirs that had been awaiting it saw nothing further on this earth. Down through the Hall it swept; and lo! when the Kings and the people recovered their sight to regard Shagpat, he was, one side of him, clean shorn, the shaven side shining as the very moon!

Surely from that moment there was no longer aught mortal in the combat that ensued. For now, while amazement and horror palsied all present, the Genie Karaz, uttering a howl of fury, shot down the length of the Hall like a black storm-bolt, and caught up Shagpat, and whirled off with him into the air; and they beheld him dive and dodge the lightnings that beset him from upper heaven, catching Shagpat from them, now by the heels, now by the hair remaining one side his head. This lasted a full hour, when the Genie paused a second, and made a sheer descent into the earth. Then saw they the wings of Koorookh, each a league in length, overshadow the entire land, and on the neck of the bird sat Shibli Bagarag cleaving through the earth with his blade, and he sat on Koorookh as the moon sits on the midnight. There was no light save the light shed abroad by the flashes of the blade, and in these they beheld the air suffocated with Afrites and Genii in a red and brown and white heat, followers of Karaz. Strokes of the blade clove them, and their blood was fire that flowed over the feathers of Koorookh, lighting him in a conflagration; but the bird flew constantly to a fountain of earth below and extinguished it. Then the battle recommenced, and the solid earth yawned at the gashes made by the mighty blade, and its depths revealed how Karaz was flying with Shagpat from circle to circle of the under-regions, hurrying with him downward to the lowest circle, that was flaming to points, like the hair of vast heads. Presently they saw a wondrous quivering flash divide the Genie, and his heels and head fell together in the abysses, leaving Shagpat prone on great brasiers of penal flame. Then the blade made another hissing sweep over Shagpat, leaving little of the wondrous growths on him save a topknot.

But now was the hour struck when Rabesqurat could be held no longer serving the ferry in Aklis; and the terrible Queen streamed in the sky, like a red disastrous comet, and dived, eagle-like, into the depths, reascending with Shagpat in her arms, cherishing him; and lo, there were suddenly a thousand Shagpats multiplied about, and the hand of Shibli Bagarag became exhausted with hewing at them. The scornful laugh of the Queen was heard throughout earth as she triumphed over Shibli Bagarag with hundreds of Shagpats, Illusions; and he knew not where to strike at the Shagpat, and was losing all sleight of hand, dexterity, and cunning. Noorna shrieked, thinking him lost; but Abarak seized his bar, and leaning it in the direction of Aklis, blew a pellet from it that struck on the eye of Aklis, and this sent out a stretching finger of beams, and singled forth very Shagpat from the myriads of semblances, so that he glowed and was ruddy, the rest cowering pale, and dissolving like salt-grains in water.

Then saw earth and its inhabitants how the Genie Karaz reascended in the shape of a vulture with a fire beak, pecking at the eyes of him that wielded the Sword, so that he was bewildered and shook this way and that over the neck of Koorookh, striking wildly, languidly cleaving towers and palaces, and monuments of earth underneath him. Now, Shibli Bagarag discerned his danger, and considered, ‘The power of the Sword is to sever brains and thoughts. Great is Allah! I’ll seek my advantage in that.’

So he whirled Koorookh thrice in the crimson smoke of the atmosphere, and put the blade between the first and second thought in the head of Rabesqurat, whereby the sense of the combat became immediately confused in her mind, and she used her powers as the fool does, equally against all, for the sake of mischief solely — no longer mistress of her own Illusions; and she began doubling and trebling Shibli Bagarag on the neck of monstrous birds, speeding in draggled flightiness from one point of the sky to another. Even in the terror of the combat, Shibli Bagarag was fair to burst into a fit of violent laughter at the sight of the Queen wagging her neck loosely, perking it like a mad raven; and he took heart, and swept the blade rapidly over Shagpat as she dandled him, leaving Shagpat but one hair remaining on him; yet was that the Identical; and it arose, and was a serpent in his head, and from its jaws issued a river of fiery serpents: these and a host of Afrites besieged Shibli Bagarag; and now, to defend himself, he unloosed the twin Genii, Karavejis and Veejravoosh, from the wrist of that hand which wielded the Sword of Aklis, and these alternately interwound before and about him, and were even as a glittering armour of emerald plates, warding from him the assaults of the host; and lo! he flew, and the battle followed him over blazing cities and lands on fire with the slanting hail of sparkles.

By this time every soul in the City of Shagpat, kings and people, all save Abarak and Noorna bin Noorka, were overcome and prostrate with their faces to the ground; but Noorna watched the conflict eagerly, and saw the head of Shagpat sprouting incessant fresh crops of hair, despite the pertinacious shearing of her betrothed. Then she smote her hands, and cried, ‘Yea! though I lose my beauty and the love of my betrothed, I must join in this, or he’ll be lost.’ So, saying to Abarak, ‘Watch over me,’ she went into the air, and, as she passed Rabesqurat, was multiplied into twenty damsels of loveliness. Then Abarak beheld a scorpion following the twenty in mid-air, and darting stings among them. Noorna tossed a ring, and it fell in a circle of flame round the scorpion. So, while the scorpion was shooting in squares to escape from the circle, the fire-beaked vulture flew to it, and fluttered a dense rain which swallowed the flame, and the scorpion and vulture assailed Noorna, that was changed to a golden hawk in the midst of nineteen other golden hawks. Now, as Rabesqurat came scudding by, and saw the encounter, she made the twenty hawks a hundred. The Genie Karaz howled at her, and pinioned her to a pillar below in the Desert, with Shagpat in her arms. But, as he soared aloft to renew the fight with Noorna, Shibli Bagarag loosed to her aid the Slaves of the Sword, and Abarak marked him slope to a distant corner of earth, and reascend in a cloud, which drew swiftly over the land toward the Great Hall. Lo, Shibli Bagarag stepped from it through a casement of the Hall, and with him Shagpat, a slack weight, mated out of all power of motion. Koorookh swooped low, on his back Baba Mustapha, and Shibli Bagarag flung Abarak beside him on the bird. Then Koorookh whirred off with them; and while the heavens raged, Shibli Bagarag prepared a rapid lather, and dashed it over Shagpat, and commenced shearing him with lightning sweeps of the blade. ’Twas as a racing wheel of fire to see him! Suddenly he desisted, and wiped the sweat from his face. Then calling on the name of Allah, he gave a last keen cunning sweep with the blade, and following that, the earth awfully quaked and groaned, as if speaking in the abysmal tongue the Mastery of the Event to all men. Aklis was revealed in burning beams as of a sun, and the trouble of the air ceased, vapours slowly curling to the four quarters. Shibli Bagarag had smitten clean through the Identical! Terribly had Noorna and those that aided her been oppressed by the multitude of their enemies; but, in a moment these melted away, and Karaz, together with the scorpion that was Goorelka, vanished. Day was on the baldness of Shagpat.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/m/meredith/george/shaving-of-shagpat/chapter23.html

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