The Shaving of Shagpat, by George Meredith

And this is The Punishment of Shahpesh, the Persian, on Khipil, the Builder

They relate that Shahpesh, the Persian, commanded the building of a palace, and Khipil was his builder. The work lingered from the first year of the reign of Shahpesh even to his fourth. One day Shahpesh went to the riverside where it stood, to inspect it. Khipil was sitting on a marble slab among the stones and blocks; round him stretched lazily the masons and stonecutters and slaves of burden; and they with the curve of humorous enjoyment on their lips, for he was reciting to them adventures, interspersed with anecdotes and recitations and poetic instances, as was his wont. They were like pleased flocks whom the shepherd hath led to a pasture freshened with brooks, there to feed indolently; he, the shepherd, in the midst.

Now, the King said to him, ‘O Khipil, show me my palace where it standeth, for I desire to gratify my sight with its fairness.’

Khipil abased himself before Shahpesh, and answered, ”Tis even here, O King of the age, where thou delightest the earth with thy foot and the ear of thy slave with sweetness. Surely a site of vantage, one that dominateth earth, air, and water, which is the builder’s first and chief requisition for a noble palace, a palace to fill foreign kings and sultans with the distraction of envy; and it is, O Sovereign of the time, a site, this site I have chosen, to occupy the tongues of travellers and awaken the flights of poets!’

Shahpesh smiled and said, ‘The site is good! I laud the site! Likewise I laud the wisdom of Ebn Busrac, where he exclaims:

“Be sure, where Virtue faileth to appear,

For her a gorgeous mansion men will rear;

And day and night her praises will be heard,

Where never yet she spake a single word.”’

Then said he, ‘O Khipil, my builder, there was once a farm servant that, having neglected in the seed-time to sow, took to singing the richness of his soil when it was harvest, in proof of which he displayed the abundance of weeds that coloured the land everywhere. Discover to me now the completeness of my halls and apartments, I pray thee, O Khipil, and be the excellence of thy construction made visible to me!’

Quoth Khipil, ‘To hear is to obey.’

He conducted Shahpesh among the unfinished saloons and imperfect courts and roofless rooms, and by half erected obelisks, and columns pierced and chipped, of the palace of his building. And he was bewildered at the words spoken by Shahpesh; but now the King exalted him, and admired the perfection of his craft, the greatness of his labour, the speediness of his construction, his assiduity; feigning not to behold his negligence.

Presently they went up winding balusters to a marble terrace, and the King said, ‘Such is thy devotion and constancy in toil, Khipil, that thou shaft walk before me here.’

He then commanded Khipil to precede him, and Khipil was heightened with the honour. When Khipil had paraded a short space he stopped quickly, and said to Shahpesh, ‘Here is, as it chanceth, a gap, O King! and we can go no further this way.’

Shahpesh said, ‘All is perfect, and it is my will thou delay not to advance.’

Khipil cried, ‘The gap is wide, O mighty King, and manifest, and it is an incomplete part of thy palace.’

Then said Shahpesh, ‘O Khipil, I see no distinction between one part and another; excellent are all parts in beauty and proportion, and there can be no part incomplete in this palace that occupieth the builder four years in its building: so advance, do my bidding.’

Khipil yet hesitated, for the gap was of many strides, and at the bottom of the gap was a deep water, and he one that knew not the motion of swimming. But Shahpesh ordered his guard to point their arrows in the direction of Khipil, and Khipil stepped forward hurriedly, and fell in the gap, and was swallowed by the water below. When he rose the second time, succour reached him, and he was drawn to land trembling, his teeth chattering. And Shahpesh praised him, and said, ‘This is an apt contrivance for a bath, Khipil O my builder! well conceived; one that taketh by surprise; and it shall be thy reward daily when much talking hath fatigued thee.’

Then he bade Khipil lead him to the hall of state. And when they were there Shahpesh said, ‘For a privilege, and as a mark of my approbation, I give thee permission to sit in the marble chair of yonder throne, even in my presence, O Khipil.’

Khipil said, ‘Surely, O King, the chair is not yet executed.’

And Shahpesh exclaimed, ‘If this be so, thou art but the length of thy measure on the ground, O talkative one!’

Khipil said, ‘Nay, ’tis not so, O King of splendours! blind that I am! yonder’s indeed the chair.’

And Khipil feared the King, and went to the place where the chair should be, and bent his body in a sitting posture, eyeing the King, and made pretence to sit in the chair of Shahpesh, as in conspiracy to amuse his master.

Then said Shahpesh, ‘For a token that I approve thy execution of the chair, thou shalt be honoured by remaining seated in it up to the hour of noon; but move thou to the right or to the left, showing thy soul insensible of the honour done thee, transfixed thou shah be with twenty arrows and five.’

The King then left him with a guard of twenty-five of his body-guard; and they stood around him with bent bows, so that Khipil dared not move from his sitting posture. And the masons and the people crowded to see Khipil sitting on his master’s chair, for it became rumoured about. When they beheld him sitting upon nothing, and he trembling to stir for fear of the loosening of the arrows, they laughed so that they rolled upon the floor of the hall, and the echoes of laughter were a thousand-fold. Surely the arrows of the guards swayed with the laughter that shook them.

Now, when the time had expired for his sitting in the chair, Shahpesh returned to him, and he was cramped, pitiable to see; and Shahpesh said, ‘Thou hast been exalted above men, O Khipil! for that thou didst execute for thy master has been found fitting for thee.’

Then he bade Khipil lead the way to the noble gardens of dalliance and pleasure that he had planted and contrived. And Khipil went in that state described by the poet, when we go draggingly, with remonstrating members,

Knowing a dreadful strength behind,

And a dark fate before.

They came to the gardens, and behold, these were full of weeds and nettles, the fountains dry, no tree to be seen — a desert. And Shahpesh cried, ‘This is indeed of admirable design, O Khipil! Feelest thou not the coolness of the fountains? — their refreshingness? Truly I am grateful to thee! And these flowers, pluck me now a handful, and tell me of their perfume.’

Khipil plucked a handful of the nettles that were there in the place of flowers, and put his nose to them before Shahpesh, till his nose was reddened; and desire to rub it waxed in him, and possessed him, and became a passion, so that he could scarce refrain from rubbing it even in the King’s presence. And the King encouraged him to sniff and enjoy their fragrance, repeating the poet’s words:

Methinks I am a lover and a child,

A little child and happy lover, both!

When by the breath of flowers I am beguiled

From sense of pain, and lulled in odorous sloth.

So I adore them, that no mistress sweet

Seems worthier of the love which they awake:

In innocence and beauty more complete,

Was never maiden cheek in morning lake.

Oh, while I live, surround me with fresh flowers!

Oh, when I die, then bury me in their bowers!

And the King said, ‘What sayest thou, O my builder? that is a fair quotation, applicable to thy feelings, one that expresseth them?’

Khipil answered, ”Tis eloquent, O great King! comprehensiveness would be its portion, but that it alludeth not to the delight of chafing.’

Then Shahpesh laughed, and cried, ‘Chafe not! it is an ill thing and a hideous! This nosegay, O Khipil, it is for thee to present to thy mistress. Truly she will receive thee well after its presentation! I will have it now sent in thy name, with word that thou followest quickly. And for thy nettled nose, surely if the whim seize thee that thou desirest its chafing, to thy neighbour is permitted what to thy hand is refused.’

The King set a guard upon Khipil to see that his orders were executed, and appointed a time for him to return to the gardens.

At the hour indicated Khipil stood before Shahpesh again. He was pale, saddened; his tongue drooped like the tongue of a heavy bell, that when it soundeth giveth forth mournful sounds only: he had also the look of one battered with many beatings. So the King said, ‘How of the presentation of the flowers of thy culture, O Khipil?’

He answered, ‘Surely, O King, she received me with wrath, and I am shamed by her.’

And the King said, ‘How of my clemency in the matter of the chafing?’

Khipil answered, ‘O King of splendours! I made petition to my neighbours whom I met, accosting them civilly and with imploring, for I ached to chafe, and it was the very raging thirst of desire to chafe that was mine, devouring eagerness for solace of chafing. And they chafed me, O King; yet not in those parts which throbbed for the chafing, but in those which abhorred it.’

Then Shahpesh smiled and said, ”Tis certain that the magnanimity of monarchs is as the rain that falleth, the sun that shineth: and in this spot it fertilizeth richness; in that encourageth rankness. So art thou but a weed, O Khipil! and my grace is thy chastisement.’

Now, the King ceased not persecuting Khipil, under pretence of doing him honour and heaping favours on him. Three days and three nights was Khipil gasping without water, compelled to drink of the drought of the fountain, as an honour at the hands of the King. And he was seven days and seven nights made to stand with stretched arms, as they were the branches of a tree, in each hand a pomegranate. And Shahpesh brought the people of his court to regard the wondrous pomegranate shoot planted by Khipil, very wondrous, and a new sort, worthy the gardens of a King. So the wisdom of the King was applauded, and men wotted he knew how to punish offences in coin, by the punishment inflicted on Khipil the builder. Before that time his affairs had languished, and the currents of business instead of flowing had become stagnant pools. It was the fashion to do as did Khipil, and fancy the tongue a constructor rather than a commentator; and there is a doom upon that people and that man which runneth to seed in gabble, as the poet says in his wisdom:

If thou wouldst be famous, and rich in splendid fruits,

Leave to bloom the flower of things, and dig among the roots.

Truly after Khipil’s punishment there were few in the dominions of Shahpesh who sought to win the honours bestowed by him on gabblers and idlers: as again the poet:

When to loquacious fools with patience rare

I listen, I have thoughts of Khipil’s chair:

His bath, his nosegay, and his fount I see —

Himself stretch’d out as a pomegranate-tree.

And that I am not Shahpesh I regret,

So to inmesh the babbler in his net.

Well is that wisdom worthy to be sung,

Which raised the Palace of the Wagging Tongue!

And whoso is punished after the fashion of Shahpesh, the Persian, on Khipil the Builder, is said to be one ‘in the Palace of the Wagging Tongue’ to this time.

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