The Adventures of Hajji Baba of Ispahan, by James Justinian Morier

Chapter xx

He succeeds in deceiving two of the faculty, getting a pill from one, and a piece of gold from the other.

I inquired my way to the ambassador’s house, and actually set off with the intention of putting the doctor’s wishes into execution, and getting, if possible, a writhing disorder on the road; but, upon more mature reflection, I recollected that a stomach-ache was not a marketable commodity which might be purchased at a moment’s notice; for although lettuce and cucumber might disagree with an old grand vizier, yet it was a hundred to one but they would find an easy digestion in a young person like me. However, I determined to obtain the pill by stratagem, if I could not procure it in a more direct manner. I considered that if I feigned to be ill, the doctor would very probably detect me, and turn me out of his house for a cheat, so I preferred the easier mode of passing myself off for one of the servants of the royal harem, and then making out some story by which I might attain my end. I accordingly stepped into one of the old clothes’ shops in the bazaar, and hired a cloak for myself, such as the scribes wear; and then substituting a roll of paper in my girdle instead of a dagger, I flattered myself that I might pass for something more than a common servant.

I soon found out where the ambassador dwelt. Bearing in mind all that Mirza Ahmak had told me, I rather approached the door of the doctor’s residence with fear and hesitation. I found the avenues to it crowded with poor women, bearing infants in their arms, who, I was told, came to receive the new-fashioned preservative against the smallpox. This, it was supposed for political reasons, the Franks were anxious to promote; and, as the doctor performed the operation gratis, he had no lack of patients, particularly of the poorer sort, who could not approach a Persian doctor without a present, or a good fee in their hand.

On entering, I found a man seated in the middle of the room, near an elevated wooden platform, upon which were piled boxes, books, and a variety of instruments and utensils, the uses of which were unknown to me. He was in dress and appearance the most extraordinary looking infidel I had ever seen. His chin and upper lip were without the vestige of a hair upon them, as like a eunuch as possible. He kept his head most disrespectfully uncovered, and wore a tight bandage round his neck, with other contrivances on the sides of his cheeks, as if he were anxious to conceal some wound or disease. His clothes were fitted so tight to his body, and his outward coat in particular was cut off at such sharp angles, that it was evident cloth was a scarce and dear commodity in his country. The lower part of his dress was particularly improper, and he kept his boots on in his room, without any consideration for the carpet he was treading upon, which struck me as a custom subversive of all decorum.

I found that he talked our language; for, as soon as he saw me, he asked me how I did, and then immediately remarked that it was a fine day, which was so self-evident a truth, that I immediately agreed to it. I then thought it necessary to make him some fine speeches, and flattered him to the best of my abilities, informing him of the great reputation he had already acquired in Persia; that Locman35 was a fool when compared to one of his wisdom; and that as for his contemporaries, the Persian physicians, they were not fit to handle his pestle for him. To all this he said nothing. I then told him that the king himself, having heard of the wonderful effects of his medicine upon the person of his grand vizier, had ordered his historian to insert the circumstance in the annals of the empire, as one of the most extraordinary events of his reign — that a considerable sensation had been produced in his majesty’s seraglio, for many of the ladies had immediately been taken ill, and were longing to make a trial of his skill — that the king’s favourite Georgian slave was, in fact, at this moment in great pain — that I had been deputed by the chief eunuch, owing to a special order from his majesty, to procure medicine similar to that which the first minister had taken — and I concluded my speech by requesting the doctor immediately to furnish me with some.

He seemed to ponder over what I had told him; and, after reflecting a short time, said that it was not his custom to administer medicine to his patients without first seeing them, for by so doing he would probably do more harm than good; but that if he found that the slave was in want of his aid, he should be very happy to attend her.

I answered to this, that as to seeing the face of the Georgian slave, that was totally out of the question, for no man ever was allowed that liberty in Persia, excepting her husband. In cases of extreme necessity, perhaps a doctor might be permitted to feel a woman’s pulse, but then it must be done when a veil covers the hand.

To which the Frank replied, ‘In order to judge of my patient’s case I must not only feel the pulse, but see the tongue also.’

‘Looking at the tongue is totally new in Persia,’ said I; ‘and I am sure you could never be indulged with such a sight in the seraglio, without a special order from the king himself; a eunuch would rather cut out his own tongue first.’

‘Well, then,’ said the doctor, ‘recollect, that if I deliver my medicine to you, I do so without taking any responsibility upon myself for its effects; for if it does not cure it may perhaps kill.’

When I had assured him that no harm or prejudice could possibly accrue to him, he opened a large chest, which appeared to be full of drugs, and taking there from the smallest quantity of a certain white powder, he mixed it up, with some bread, into the form of a pill, and putting it into paper gave it me, with proper directions how it should be administered. Seeing that he made no mystery of his knowledge, I began to question him upon the nature and properties of this particular medicine, and upon his practice in general. He answered me without any reserve; not like our Persian doctors, who only make a parade of fine words, and who adjust every ailment that comes before them to what they read in their Galen, their Hippocrates, and their Abou Avicenna.

When I had learned all I could, I left him with great demonstration of friendship and thankfulness, and immediately returned to Mirza Ahmak, who doubtless was waiting for me with great impatience. Having divested myself of my borrowed cloak and resumed my own dress, I appeared before him with a face made up for the occasion, for I wished to make him believe that the lettuce and cucumbers had done their duty. At every word I pretended to receive a violent twitch, and acted my part so true to life, that the stern and inflexible nature of Mirza Ahmak himself was moved into somewhat like pity for me.

‘There! there,’ said I, as I entered his apartment, ‘in the name of Allah take your prize:’ and then pretending to be bent double, I made the most horrid grimaces, and uttered deep groans: ‘there! I have followed your orders, and now throw myself upon your generosity.’ He endeavoured to take the object of his search from me, but I kept it fast; and whilst I gave him to understand that I expected prompt reward, I made indications of an intention to swallow it, unless he actually gave me something in hand. So fearful was he of not being able to answer the king’s interrogatories concerning the pill, so anxious to get it into his possession, that he actually pressed a gold piece upon me. No lover could sue his mistress with more earnestness to grant him a favour than the doctor did me for my pill. I should very probably have continued the deceit a little longer, and have endeavoured to extract another piece from him; but when I saw him preparing a dose of his own mixture to ease my pain, I thought it high time to finish, and pretending all of a sudden to have received relief, I gave up my prize.

When once he had got possession, he looked at it with intense eagerness, and turned it over and over on his palm, without appearing one whit more advanced in his knowledge than before. At length, after permitting him fully to exhaust his conjectures, I told him that the Frank doctor had made no secret in saying that it was composed of jivch, or mercury.

‘Mercury, indeed!’ exclaimed Mirza Ahmak, ‘just as if I did not know that. And so, because this infidel, this dog of an Isauvi,36 chooses to poison us with mercury, I am to lose my reputation, and my prescriptions (such as his father never even saw in a dream) are to be turned into ridicule. Whoever heard of mercury as a medicine? Mercury is cold, and lettuce and cucumber are cold also. You would not apply ice to dissolve ice? The ass does not know the first rudiments of his profession. No, Hajji, this will never do; we must not permit our beards to be laughed at in this manner.’

He continued to inveigh for a considerable time against his rival; and would, no doubt, have continued to do so much longer, but he was stopped by a message from the king, who ordered him to repair forthwith to his presence. In the greatest trepidation he immediately put himself into his court dress, exchanged his common black lamb’s skin cap for one wound about with a shawl, huddled on his red cloth stockings, called for his horse, and, taking the pill with him, went off in great hurry, and full of the greatest apprehension at what might be the result of the audience.

35 [ Locman is the most celebrated of the Eastern sages, and is supposed by some to be the same as Aesop. The title usually given to a doctor in Persia is Locman al zeman, the Locman of his day.]

36 [ Isauvi, a follower of Jesus.]

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