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

Chapter xix

Hajji Baba gets into the service of the king’s physician — Of the manner he was first employed by him.

As soon as I appeared, the doctor invited me into the room, and requested me to be seated; which I did with all the humility which is the etiquette for an inferior to show towards his superior for so great an honour. He informed me that the poet had spoken very favourably of me, and had said that I was a person to be depended upon, particularly on account of my discretion and prudence; that I had seen a great deal of life; that I was fertile in expedients; and that if any business in which circumspection and secrecy were necessary was intrusted to me, I should conduct it with all the ability required. I bowed repeatedly as he spoke, and kept my hands respectfully before me, covered with the border of my sleeve, whilst I took care that my feet were also completely hid. He then continued, and said — ‘I have occasion for a person of your description precisely at this moment, and as I put great confidence in the recommendation of my friend Asker, it is my intention to make use of your good offices; and if you succeed according to my expectations, you may rest assured that it will be well for you, and that I shall not remain unmindful of your services.’

Then requesting me to approach nearer to him, and in a low and confidential tone of voice, he said, looking over his shoulders as if afraid of being overheard — ‘Hajji, you must know that an ambassador from the Franks is lately arrived at this court, in whose suite there is a doctor. This infidel has already acquired considerable reputation here. He treats his patients in a manner quite new to us, and has arrived with a chest full of medicines, of which we do not even know the names. He pretends to the knowledge of a great many things of which we have never yet heard in Persia. He makes no distinction between hot and cold diseases, and hot and cold remedies, as Galenus and Avicenna have ordained, but gives mercury by way of a cooling medicine; stabs the belly with a sharp instrument for wind in the stomach;34 and, what is worse than all, pretends to do away with the small-pox altogether, by infusing into our nature a certain extract of cow, a discovery which one of their philosophers has lately made. Now this will never do, Hajji. The smallpox has always been a comfortable source of revenue to me; I cannot afford to lose it, because an infidel chooses to come here and treat us like cattle. We cannot allow him to take the bread out of our mouths. But the reason why I particularly want your help proceeds from the following cause. The grand vizier was taken ill, two days ago, of a strange uneasiness, after having eaten more than his usual quantity of raw lettuce and cucumber, steeped in vinegar and sugar. This came to the Frank ambassador’s ears, who, in fact, was present at the eating of the lettuce, and he immediately sent his doctor to him, with a request that he might be permitted to administer relief. The grand vizier and the ambassador, it seems, had not been upon good terms for some time, because the latter was very urgent that some demand of a political nature might be conceded to him, which the vizier, out of consideration for the interests of Persia, was obliged to deny; and, therefore, thinking that this might be a good opportunity of conciliating the infidel, and of coming to a compromise, he agreed to accept of the doctor’s services. Had I been apprised of the circumstance in time, I should easily have managed to put a stop to the proceeding; but the doctor did not lose an instant in administering his medicine, which, I hear, only consisted of one little white and tasteless pill. From all accounts, and as ill luck would have it, the effect it has produced is something quite marvellous. The grand vizier has received such relief that he can talk of nothing else; he says, ‘that he felt the pill drawing the damp from the very tips of his fingers’; and that now he has discovered in himself such newness of strength and energy, that he laughs at his old age, and even talks of making up the complement of wives permitted to him by our blessed Prophet. But the mischief has not stopped here; the fame of this medicine, and of the Frank doctor, has gone throughout the court; and the first thing which the king talked of at the selam (the audience) this morning, was of its miraculous properties. He called upon the grand vizier to repeat to him all that he had before said upon the subject; and as he talked of the wonders that it had produced upon his person, a general murmur of applause and admiration was heard throughout the assembly. His majesty then turned to me, and requested me to explain the reason why such great effects should proceed from so small a cause, when I was obliged to answer, stooping as low as I could to hide my confusion, and kissing the earth —“I am your sacrifice: O king of kings, I have not yet seen the drug which the infidel doctor has given to your majesty’s servant, the grand vizier; but as soon as I have, I will inform your majesty of what it consists. In the meanwhile, your humble slave beseeches the Centre of the Universe to recollect that the principal agent, on this occasion, must be an evil spirit, an enemy to the true faith, since he is an instrument in the hands of an infidel; of one who calls our holy Prophet a cheat, and who disowns the all-powerful decrees of predestination.”

‘Having said this, in order to shake his growing reputation, I retired in deep cogitation how I might get at the secrets of the infidel, and particularly inquire into the nature of his prescription, which has performed such miracles; and you are come most opportunely to my assistance. You must immediately become acquainted with him; and I shall leave it to your address to pick his brain and worm his knowledge out of him; but as I wish to procure a specimen of the very medicine which he administered to the grand vizier, being obliged to give an account of it to-morrow to the Shah, you must begin your services to me by eating much of lettuce and raw cucumbers, and of making yourself as sick to the full as his highness the vizier. You may then apply to the Frank, who will, doubtless, give you a duplicate of the celebrated pill, which you will deliver over to me.’

‘But,’ said I, who had rather taken fright at this extraordinary proposal, ‘how shall I present myself before a man whom I do not know? besides, such marvellous stories are related of the Europeans, that I should be puzzled in what manner to behave: pray give me some instructions how to act.’

‘Their manners and customs are totally different to ours, that is true,’ replied Mirza Ahmak, ‘and you may form some idea of them, when I tell you, that instead of shaving their heads, and letting their beards grow, as we do, they do the very contrary, for not a vestige of hair is to be seen on their chins, and their hair is as thick on their heads as if they had made a vow never to cut it off: then they sit on little platforms, whilst we squat on the ground; they take up their food with claws made of iron, whilst we use our fingers; they are always walking about, we keep seated; they wear tight clothes, we loose ones; they write from left to right, we from right to left; they never pray, we five times a day; in short, there is no end to what might be related of them; but most certain it is, that they are the most filthy people on the earth, for they hold nothing to be unclean; they eat all sorts of animals, from a pig to a tortoise, without the least scruple, and that without first cutting their throats; they will dissect a dead body, without requiring any purification after it, and perform all the brute functions of their nature, without ever thinking it necessary to go to the hot bath, or even rubbing themselves with sand after them.’

‘And is it true,’ said I, ‘that they are so irascible, that if perchance their word is doubted, and they are called liars, they will fight on such an occasion till they die?’

‘That is also said of them,’ answered the doctor; ‘but the case has not happened to me yet; however, I must warn you of one thing, which is, that if they happen to admire anything you possess, you must not say to them, as you would to one of us, “It is a present to you, it is your property,” lest they should take you at your word and keep it, which you know would be inconvenient, and not what you intended; but you must endeavour as much as possible to speak what you think, for that is what they like.’

‘But then, if such is the case,’ said I, ‘do not you think that the Frank doctor will find me out with a lie in my mouth; pretending to be sick when I am well; asking medicine from him for myself, when I want it for another?’

‘No, no,’ said the Mirza; ‘you are to be sick, really sick, you know, and then it will be no lie. Go, Hajji, my friend,’ said he, putting his arm round my neck: ‘go, eat your cucumbers immediately, and let me have the pill by this evening.’ And then coaxing me, and preventing me from making any further objections to his unexpected request, he gently pushed me out of the room, and I left him, scarcely knowing whether to laugh or to cry at the new posture which my affairs had taken. To sicken without any stipulated reward was what I could not consent to do, so I retraced my steps, with a determination of making a bargain with my patron; but, when I got to the room, he was no longer there, having apparently retreated into his harem; and, therefore, I was obliged to proceed on my errand.

34 [ This alludes to tapping in cases of dropsy — an operation unknown among the Persians until our surgeons taught it them.]

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:58