On the following evening, I ascended the terrace in the hope of seeing the signal of meeting; but in vain; no veil was visible; and I sat myself down in despair. The tobacco, and all the apparatus for cleaning it, had disappeared, and all was hushed below. Even the unceasing voice of the doctor’s wife, which I now began to look upon as the most agreeable sound in nature, was wanting; and the occasional drag of a slipper, which I guessed might proceed from the crawl of old Leilah, was the only sign of an inhabitant. I had in succession watched the distant din of the king’s band, the crash of the drums, and the swell of the trumpets, announcing sunset. I had listened to the various tones of the muezzins, announcing the evening prayer; as well as to the small drum of the police, ordering the people to shut their shops, and retire to their homes. The cry of the sentinels on the watch-towers of the king’s palace was heard at distant intervals; night had completely closed in upon me, and still the same silence prevailed in the doctor’s harem.
‘What can be the reason of this?’ said I to myself. ‘If they have been to the bath, they cannot have remained thus late: besides, the baths are open for the women in the mornings only. Some one must be sick, or there is a marriage, or a birth, or perhaps a burial; or the doctor may have received the bastinado’; in short, I was killing myself with conjecture, when of a sudden a great beating at the door took place, and, as it opened, the clatter of slippers was heard, attended by the mingled sounds of many female voices, amongst which the well-known querulous tone of the khanum was prominent. Several lanterns passed to and fro, which showed me the forms of the women, amongst whom, as they threw off their veils, I recognized that of my Zeenab. I determined to watch, in the hope that I might still be blessed with an interview; and, in fact, it was not long before she appeared. She stole to me with great precaution, to say that circumstances would prevent our meeting on this occasion, as she should not fail being missed; but that, certainly, ere long, she would contrive to secure an interview. In few words, she informed me that her mistress had been called upon to attend her sister (one of the ladies in the Shah’s seraglio), who being taken suddenly ill, had expired almost immediately (it was supposed by poison administered by a rival), and that she had taken all her women with her, in order to increase the clamour of lamentation which was always made on such occasions; that they had been there since noon, rending the air with every proper exclamation, until they were all hoarse; that her mistress had already torn her clothes, an etiquette which she had performed however with great care, considering that she wore a favourite jacket, having permitted only one or two seams of it to be ripped open. As the burial would take place the next day, it was necessary that they should be at their post early in the morning to continue the lamentations — a service for which she expected to receive a black handkerchief, and to eat sweetmeats. My fair one then left me, promising that she would do her utmost to secure a meeting on the following evening, and telling me not to forget the signal.
On getting up the next morning, I was much surprised to see it already made, and to perceive Zeenab below, beckoning me to go to her. I did not hesitate immediately to descend from the terrace by the same flight of steps which she used to ascend it, and then of a sudden I found myself in the very centre of the harem. An involuntary tremor seized me, when I reflected that I was in a place into which no man with impunity is permitted to enter; but, fortified by the smiles and the unconstrained manner of my enchantress, I proceeded.
‘Come, Hajji,’ said she, ‘banish all fear; no one is here but Zeenab, and, if our luck is good, we may have the whole day to ourselves.’
‘By what miracle,’ exclaimed I, ‘have you done this? Where is the Khanum? where are the women? and, if they are not here, how shall I escape the doctor?’
‘Do not fear,’ she repeated again; ‘I have barred all the doors; and should any one come, you will have time to escape before I open them: but there is no fear of that; all the women are gone to the funeral; and as for Mirza Ahmak, my mistress has taken care to dispose of him in such a manner, now that I am left by myself, that he will not dare to come within a parasang of his own house. You must know then,’ said she, ‘for I see you are all astonishment, that our destinies are on the rise, and that it was a lucky hour when we first saw each other. Everything plays into our hands. My rival, the Georgian, put it into the khanum’s head, that Leilah, who is a professed weeper at burials, having learned the art, in all its branches since a child, was a personage absolutely necessary on the present occasion, and that she ought to go in preference to me, who am a Cûrd, and can know but little of Persian customs: all this, of course, to deprive me of my black handkerchief, and other advantages. Accordingly, I have been left at home; and the whole party went off an hour ago to the house of the deceased. I pretended to be very angry, and opposed Leilah’s taking my place with apparent warmth; but, thank Heaven, here we are, and so let us make the most of our time.’
Upon which she went into the kitchen to prepare a tray, containing a breakfast for me, whilst she left me to explore that which is hidden from all bachelors, namely, the interior of the harem.
I first went into the apartments of the khanum herself. It opened upon the garden by an immense sash-window, composed of stained glass; and in the corner was the accustomed seat of the lady, marked by a thick felt carpet, folded double, and a large down cushion, covered with cloth of gold, with two tassels at the extremities, and veiled by a thin outer covering of muslin. Near this seat was a looking-glass, prettily painted, and a box containing all sorts of curiosities; the surmé (collyrium) for the eyes, with its small instrument for applying it; some Chinese rouge; a pair of armlets, containing talismans; a toû zoulfeh, or an ornament to hitch into the hair, and hang on the forehead; a knife, scissors, and other things. A guitar and a tambourine lay close at hand. Her bed, rolled up in a distant corner, was enclosed in a large wrapper of blue and white cloth. Several pictures, without frames, were hung against the walls, and the shelf which occupied the top of the room was covered with different sorts of glasses, basins, etc. In a corner were seen several bottles of Shiraz wine, one of which, just stopped with a flower, appeared to have been used by the good lady that very morning; most likely in order to keep up her spirits during the melancholy ceremony she was about to attend.
‘So,’ said I to myself, ‘the Prophet is not much heeded in this house. I shall know another time how to appreciate a sanctified and mortified look. Our doctor, who calls himself a staunch Mussulman, I see makes up for his large potations of cold water and sherbet abroad, by his good stock of wine at home.’
By the time I had satisfied my curiosity here, and had inspected the other rooms, which belonged to the servants, Zeenab had prepared our breakfast, which she placed before us in the khanum’s room. We sat down next to each other, and reposed upon the very cushion of which I have just given the description. Nothing could be more delicious than the meal which she had prepared: there was a dish of rice, white as snow, and near it a plate of roast meat, cut into small bits, wrapped up in a large flap of bread; then a beautiful Ispahan melon, in long slices; some pears and apricots; an omelette warmed from a preceding meal; cheese, onions, and leeks; a basin of sour curds, and two different sorts of sherbet: added to this, we had some delicious sweetmeats, and a basin full of new honey.
‘How, in the name of your mother,’ exclaimed I, as I pulled up my whiskers, and surveyed the good things before me, ‘how have you managed to collect all this so soon? This is a breakfast fit for the Shah.’
‘Oh, as to that,’ she replied, ‘do not trouble yourself, but fall to. My mistress ordered her breakfast to be prepared over-night, but on second thoughts this morning she determined to make her meal at the house of the deceased, and has left me, as you see, but little to do. Come, let us eat and be merry.’
Accordingly, we did honour to the breakfast, and left but little for those who might come after us. After we had washed our hands, we placed the wine before us, and having each broken the commandment by taking a cup, we congratulated ourselves upon being two of the happiest of human beings.
(A Persian picture.)
Such was my delight, that taking up the guitar which was near me, and putting aside all apprehension for the present, and all care for the future, I tuned it to my voice, and sang the following ode of Hafiz, which I had learnt in my youth, when I used to charm my hearers in the bath:—
What bliss is like to whisp’ring love,
Or dalliance in the bowers of spring?
Why then delay my bliss t’improve?
Haste, haste, my love, the goblet bring.
Each hour that joy and mirth bestow
Call it treasure, count it gain;
Fool is the man who seeks to know
His pleasure will it end in pain!
The links which our existence bind
Hang not by one weak thread alone;
Of man’s distress why tease the mind?
Sufficient ’tis, we know our own.
The double charms of love and wine
Alike from one sweet source arise:
Are we to blame, shall we repine,
When unconstrain’d the passions rise?
If innocent in heart and mind,
I sin unconscious of offence
What use, O casuist, shall I find
In absolution’s recompense?
Hermits the flowing spring approve;
Poets the sparkling bowl enjoy:
And, till he’s judged by powers above,
Hafiz will drink, and sing, and toy.
Zeenab was quite in ecstasy: she had never heard anything so delightful in her life, and forgetting that both of us were but wretched individuals — she a slave, I the most destitute of beings — we did and felt as if all that surrounded us was our own, and that the wine and our love would last for ever.
Having sang several more songs, and emptied several cups of wine, I found that my poetry was exhausted as well as our bottle.
It was still quite early, and we had much time before us. ‘Zeenab,’ said I, ‘you have long promised to tell me the history of your life, and now is a good opportunity; we are not likely to be interrupted for a long while, and, as our meetings at night are very uncertain, an hour cannot be better filled up than by the recital of your adventures.’ She assented to my proposal with much good humour, and began as follows.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:12