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

Chapter xxxii

Hajji is appointed to a situation under government — He becomes an executioner.

I watched an opportunity before the doctor set out the next morning for the Der-Khoneh,62 to speak upon my future plans, and to request him to lose no time in asking for me the place of the deceased nasakchi from the chief executioner. I urged the necessity of acting immediately; for as the Shah would leave the capital for his camp at Sultanieh, in the course of a few days, and as the doctor would be called upon to accompany him, it was plain, if he did not in some manner provide for me, I should be left upon his hands.

The doctor, who was still calculating the expenses of his entertainment to the Shah, and had resolved upon adopting a system of more rigid economy in his household, was not sorry to lose a hungry hanger-on, and without hesitation he promised to assist me. It was agreed between us, that he would forthwith call upon the chief executioner, and appointed me to meet him at court, after the morning’s selam (levee) was over. As soon, therefore, as the mid-day prayer had been announced from the mosque, I went to the palace, and took my station without the room which is appropriated for the use of the head executioner, and which is situated with its large window immediately facing the principal gate. Several persons were collected there. He himself was taken up with saying his prayers in a corner, and apparently completely abstracted from a conversation that was carrying on between my friend the poet laureate and the under-master of ceremonies.

The latter was describing to the former the death of the unfortunate nasakchi, and was mixing a considerable portion of the marvellous in his narrative, when the chief executioner, from the middle of his devotions, cried out, ’Een derough est,‘—‘that’s a lie — have patience, and I will tell you how it was,’ and then went on with his holy invocations. As soon as they were over, and almost before he had finished his last prostration, he began his story, relating the fact with infinitely more exaggeration than the master of the ceremonies had done, and finishing by a round assertion, that the Frank had bled the poor man to death, after the Persian doctor had brought him to life only by shaking him.63

The Chief Executioner.

(From a drawing by James Morier.)

During the chief executioner’s narration, Mirza Ahmak entered the room, and far from denying what was asserted of the two doctors, he confirmed it the more by new and stronger circumstances, and then finished by pointing to me, and said, ‘This is he who would have saved the nasakchi’s life, if he had not been prevented.’ Upon this, the eyes of all present were turned upon me, and I was called upon to relate the whole circumstance as it had happened, which I did, making my version coincide as nearly as possible with what had been already related; but giving all the merit of the science which I had displayed to the tuition of the chief physician. Mirza Ahmak, elated by my praise, was full of zeal to serve me, and he then introduced me to the chief executioner as a man fit and willing to undertake the office of the deceased nasakchi.

‘How!’ said the head of the nasakchies, ‘a doctor become an executioner! how can that be?’

‘There is no harm in that,’ said the poet (looking at the doctor through the corner of his eye)—‘they are both in the same line — the one does his business with more certainty than the other, that’s true; but after all, it signifies little whether a man dies gradually by a pill, or at once by a stroke of the scimitar.’

‘As for that,’ retorted Mirza Ahmak, ‘to judge of others by you, poets are in the same line too; for they murder men’s reputations; and everybody will agree with me, that that is a worse sort of killing than the doctor’s (as you were pleased to say), or the nasakchi’s.’

‘That’s all very well,’ exclaimed the chief executioner; ‘you may kill in any manner you choose, provided you leave me the soldier’s manner. Give me good hard fighting — let me have my thrust with the lance, and my cut with the sabre, and I want nothing more — let me snuff up the smell of gunpowder, and I leave the scent of the rose to you, Mr. Poet — give me but the roar of cannon, and I shall never envy you the song of the nightingale. We all have our weaknesses — these are mine.’

‘Yes,’ said the master of the ceremonies, addressing himself to the whole assembly: ‘Everybody knows your several merits. The Shah particularly (who by the by has studied the art of killing as well as any of you) is frequently expressing his delight, that of all the monarchs which Persia ever had, he is the best served; and with that feeling he talks of carrying his arms into the very heart of Georgia. If the Russians once hear that you are going amongst them,’ addressing himself to the chief executioner, ‘they may begin to make their accounts clear in this world, and prepare for the next.’

‘What are the Russians?’ said the executioner, with half a shrug and half a shiver; ‘they are dust — they are nothing — the possession of Georgia by the Russians is to Persia what a flea which has got into my shirt is to me: it teazes me now and then, but if I gave myself the least trouble, I would hunt it out in a minute. The Russians are nothing.’ Then, as if he were anxious to waive the subject, he turned to me, and said: ‘Well, I agree to take you into the service, provided you are as fond of the smell of powder as I am. A nasakchi must have the strength of a Rustam, the heart of a lion, and the activity of a tiger.’ Then looking at me from head to foot, he seemed pleased with my appearance, and forthwith ordered me to go to his naib, or lieutenant, who would equip me for my office, and give me instructions respecting all the duties I should have to perform.

I found the Naib to be in the midst of preparations for the departure of the Shah, giving his orders, and receiving the reports of those under his command. As soon as he was informed that I was the man appointed to succeed the deceased officer, he put me in possession of his horse and its accoutrements, gave me strict injunctions to take the greatest care of it, and informed me that I could not be provided with another unless I brought back its tail and the mark peculiar to the royal horses, which is burnt on its flank. My stipend was fixed at thirty tomauns per annum, with food for myself and horse. I found myself in dress and arms, except a small hatchet, which indicated my office and was provided by the government.

But before I proceed further, it is necessary that I make my reader acquainted with the person and character of Namerd Khan, my new master. He was a tall, square-shouldered, bony man, about forty-five years of age — young enough to be still called a khûb jûan (a fine youth). The features of his face were cast in a deep mould, and shaded by black and thick eyebrows, as well as by a jet black beard and moustachios. His hand was particularly large and muscular; and from the black hairs that curled out from the crevices of his shirt, it was evident that his fur was of the thickest quality. Altogether he was of a figure commanding, but coarse, and looked his office greatly to the advantage of the peace of the city, for the very sight of him was sufficient to awe the evil-minded. He was the most celebrated khôsh guzerân (sensualist) in Tehran. He drank wine without compunction, and freely cursed the mollahs, who promised him a seat in the regions below for holding the injunctions of the Prophet so cheap. His house was the seat of revelry; the noise of singing and tambours was heard there from night till morning. He kept men dancers and women dancers; and was the protector of every Lûti,64 however impudent and obscene he might be. But with all this, he did not in the least relax in the severities of his office; and one might frequently hear, amid the sounds of revelry, the cries and groans of some unfortunate wretch who was writhing under the torture of the bastinado on his feet. He was an excellent horseman, and very dexterous at the spear exercise; and although there was everything in his appearance to make one believe that he was a soldier and a man of prowess, yet in fact he was a most arrant coward. He endeavoured to conceal this defect of his nature by boasting and big words; and succeeded in persuading those who did not know his real character, that he was among the modern Persians, what Sâm and Afrasiâb65 were among the ancient.

His lieutenant, a man of stern aspect, was an active and intelligent officer: he understood the management of his chief, whom he flattered into a belief, that, besides the Shah and himself, no one was worthy to be called a man in Persia. I soon discovered that his prevailing passion was avarice; for when he found that I was to be installed in my office without making him a present, there was no end to the difficulties which he threw in my way. However, by dint of making use of that tongue which nature had given me, and persuading him, in his turn, that he was the cream of lieutenants, and the very best of materials for the future executioner in chief, he relaxed in his dislike, and even flattered me so much as to say, that, by the blessing of Allah, the benign and the merciful, he believed that I should not fail to become in time an ornament to the profession.

I still kept my lodging at the doctor’s house until the period of the Shah’s departure, and filled up my time in preparing for the journey. The very circumstance of being a nasakchi gave me consequence in the bazaar, and I found no difficulty in procuring everything I wanted upon credit. During my stay with the doctor, I had managed to set myself up with a small capital of necessaries, which I had procured either in presents from patients, or by happy contrivances of my own. As for instance, I wanted a bed, a quilt, and a pillow: a poor man happening to die under our charge, I assured his relations, whom I knew to be the most bigoted of Mussulmans, that his death could be no fault of ours, for no one could doubt the skill with which he had been treated, but that the bed upon which he lay must be unfortunate; for in the first place, the quilt was of silk;66 and in the next, the foot of the bed had not been turned towards the Kebleh,67 as it ought to have been: this was enough for the family to discard the bed, and it became mine.

A looking-glass was necessary to my toilet: a mirza, sick of the jaundice, looked at himself in one which he possessed, and was horror-struck at his colour. I assured him that it only proceeded from a defect in the glass, for that in fact he was as fresh as a rose. He threw it away, and I took it home with me.

No one was stricter than Mirza Ahmak himself in all the exteriors of religion, and scrupulous to a fault about things forbidden as unclean. I was in want of a pair of yakhdans, or trunks, and a pair belonging to the doctor, which were lying idle in an unfrequented room, were frequently the objects of my contemplation. How shall I manage to become master of these? thought I: had I but half the invention of Dervish Sefer, I should already have been packing up my things in them. A thought struck me: one of the many curs, which range wild throughout Tehran, had just pupped under a ruined archway, close to our house. Unseen, I contrived to lodge the whole litter within one of the trunks, and to make a deposit of old bones in the other. When they came to be moved, preparatory to the doctor’s journey (for he always accompanies the Shah), the puppies and their mother set up such a confusion of yells, that the servant who had disturbed them ran breathless with the information to the doctor, who, followed by his household, including myself, proceeded to the spot. As soon as the state of the case had been ascertained, many were struck by the singularity of the circumstance, as an omen portending no good to the doctor’s house. One said, ‘This comes of marrying the khanum; she will give him a houseful of harem zadehs.’ Another said, ‘The puppies are yet blind: God grant that we and the doctor may not become so likewise!’ The doctor himself was only vexed by the loss of his trunks; he pronounced them to be nejes (unclean) from that moment, and ordered them, puppies, bitch and all, immediately to be expelled. I was not long in appropriating them; and very soon assumed all the consequence of a man possessing trunks, which also implied things worthy to be put into them. Little by little, I scraped together a sufficient quantity of effects to be able to talk big about my baggage; and when preparations for our departure were making, I held myself entitled to the privilege of squabbling with the king’s mule-drivers concerning the necessity of a mule for carrying it.

62 [ The gate of the palace, where public business is transacted.]

63 [ Perhaps the description of this personage will bring to the recollection of those who were in Persia in the years 1813 and 1814 the character of the nasakchi bashi of that day.]

64 [ Luti here is used in the sense of polisson.]

65 [ Celebrated heroes in the Shah Nameh, a book which is believed, by the present Persians, to contain their ancient history.]

66 [ Strict Mussulmans hold silk unclean.]

67 [ In the direction of Mecca.]

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