The Shaving of Shagpat, by George Meredith

The Well of Paravid

Now, there was haste in the movements of Noorna bin Noorka, and she arrayed herself and clutched Shibli Bagarag by the arm, and the twain departed from Feshnavat the Vizier, and came to the outside of the city, and lo! there was the Genie by a well under a palm, and he standing in the shape of an Ass, saddled. So they mounted him, and in a moment they were in the midst of the desert, and naught round them save the hot glimmer of the sands and the grey of the sky. Surely, the Ass went at such a pace as never Ass went before in this world, resting not by the rivulets, nor under the palms, nor beside the date-boughs; it was as if the Ass scurried without motion of his legs, so swiftly went he. At last the desert gave signs of a border on the low line of the distance, and this grew rapidly higher as they advanced, revealing a country of hills and rocks, and at the base of these the Ass rested.

So Noorna, said, ‘This desert that we have passed, O my betrothed, many are they that perish in it, and reach not the well; but give thanks to Allah that it is passed.’

Then said she, ‘Dismount, and be wary of moving to the front or to the rear of this Ass, and measure thy distance from the lash of his tail.’

So Shibli Bagarag dismounted, and followed her up the hills and the rocks, through ravines and gorges of the rocks, and by tumbling torrents, among hanging woods, over perilous precipices, where no sun hath pierced, and the bones of travellers whiten in loneliness; and they continued mounting upward by winding paths, now closed in by coverts, now upon open heights having great views, and presently a mountain was disclosed to them, green at the sides high up it; and Noorna bin Noorka said to Shibli Bagarag, ‘Mount here, for the cunning of this Ass can furnish him no excuse further for making thee food for the birds of prey.’

So Shibli Bagarag mounted, and they ceased not to ascend the green slopes till the grass became scanty and darkness fell, and they were in a region of snow and cold. Then Noorna bin Noorka tethered the Ass to a stump of a tree and breathed in his ear, and the Ass became as a creature carved in stone; and she drew from her bosom two bags of silk, and blew in one and entered it, bidding Shibli Bagarag do likewise with the other bag; and he obeyed her, drawing it up to his neck, and the delightfulness of warmth came over him. Then said she, ‘To-morrow, at noon, we shall reach near the summit of the mountain and the Well of Paravid, if my power last over this Ass; and from that time thou wilt be on the high road to greatness, so fail not to remember what I have done for thee, and be not guilty of ingratitude when thy hand is the stronger.’

He promised her, and they lay and slept. When he awoke the sun was half-risen, and he looked at Noorna bin Noorka in the silken bag, and she was yet in the peacefulness of pleasant dreams; but for the Ass, surely his eyes rolled, and his head and fore legs were endued with life, while his latter half seemed of stone. And the youth called to Noorna bin Noorka, and pointed to her the strangeness of the condition of the Ass. As she cast eyes on him she cried out, and rushed to him, and took him by the ears and blew up his nostrils, and the animal was quiet. Then she and Shibli Bagarag mounted him again, and she said to him, ‘It is well thou wert more vigilant than I, and that the sun rose not on this Ass while I slept, or my enchantment would have thawed on him, and he would have ‘scaped us.’

She gave her heel to the Ass, and the Ass hung his tail in sullenness and drooped his head; and she laughed, crying, ‘Karaz, silly fellow! do thy work willingly, and take wisely thine outwitting.’

She jeered him as they journeyed, and made the soul of Shibli Bagarag merry, so that he jerked in his seat upon the Ass. Now, as they ascended the mountain they came to the opening of a cavern, and Noorna bin Noorka halted the Ass, and said to Shibli Bagarag, ‘We part here, and I wait for thee in this place. Take this phial, and fill it with the waters of the well, after thy bath. The way is before thee — speed on it.’

He climbed the sides of the mountain, and was soon hidden in the clefts and beyond the perches of the vulture. She kept her eyes on the rocky point when he disappeared, awaiting his return; and the sun went over her head and sank on the yon-side of the mountain, and it was by the beams of the moon that she beheld Shibli Bagarag dropping from the crags and ledges of rock, sliding and steadying himself downward till he reached her with the phial in his hand, filled; and he was radiant, as it were divine with freshness, so that Noorna, before she spoke welcome to him, was lost in contemplating the warm shine of his visage, calling to mind the poet’s words:

The wealth of light in sun and moon,

All nature’s wealth,

Hath mortal beauty for a boon

When match’d with health.

Then said she, ‘O Shibli Bagarag, ’tis achieved, this first of thy tasks; for mutely on the fresh red of thy mouth, my betrothed, speaketh the honey of persuasiveness, and the children of Aklis will not resist thee.’ So she took the phial from him and led forth the Ass, and the twain mounted the Ass and descended the slopes of the mountain in moonlight; and Shibli Bagarag said, ‘Lo! I have marked wonders, and lived a life since our parting; and this well, ’tis a miracle to dip in it, and by it sit many maidens weeping and old men babbling, and youths that were idle youths striking bubbles from the surface of the water. The well is rounded with marble, and the sky is clear in it, cool in it, the whole earth imaged therein.’

Then Noorna said, ‘Hadst thou a difficulty in obtaining the waters of the well?’

He answered, ‘Surely all was made smooth for me by thy aid. Now when I came to the well I marked not them by it, but plunged, and the depth of that well seemed to me the very depth of the earth itself, so went I ever downward; and when I was near the bottom of the well I had forgotten life above, and lo! no sooner had I touched the bottom of the well when my head emerged from the surface: ’twas wondrous! But for a sign that touched the bottom of the well, see, O Noorna bin Noorka, the Jewel, the one of myriads that glitter at the bottom, and I plucked it for a gift to thee.’

So Noorna took the Jewel from his hand that was torn and crimson, and she cried, ‘Thou fair youth, thou bleedest with the plucking of it, and it was written, no hand shall pluck a jewel at the bottom of that well without letting of blood. Even so it is! Worthy art thou, and I was not mistaken in thee.’

At her words Shibli Bagarag burst forth into praises of her, and he sang:

‘What is my worthiness

Match’d with thy worth?

Darkness and earthiness,

Dust and dearth!

O Noorna, thou art wise above women: great and glorious over them.’

In this fashion the youth lauded her that was his betrothed, but she exclaimed, ‘Hush! or the jealousy of this Ass will be aroused, and of a surety he’ll spill us.’

Then he laughed and she laughed till the tail of Karaz trembled.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/m/meredith/george/shaving-of-shagpat/chapter6.html

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