In my walk I had almost determined to quit the doctor’s house immediately, and abandon Tehran, such was the desperate view I took of my situation; but my love for Zeenab overcame this resolution; and in the hope of seeing her again, I continued to drag on a miserable existence as a dependent on Mirza Ahmak. He had no suspicion that I was his rival, and that I had been the cause of the late confusion in his harem; but he was aware that some one must have had access to it, and therefore took such precautions for the future, that I found great difficulty in discovering how it fared with my love, or what had been the consequences of the anger of the khanum. I daily watched the door of the anderûn, in the hope of seeing Zeenab in the suite of her mistress when she went out, but in vain: there was no indication of her, and my imagination made me apprehend either that she was kept in close confinement, or that she had fallen a victim of the violence of her enemies in the harem. My impatience had risen to the utmost, when I, one day, perceived that Nûr Jehan,47 the black slave, had issued from the house by herself, and was making her way to the bazaar. I followed her, and trusting to the friendship that she formerly entertained for the mistress of my heart, I ventured to accost her.
‘Peace be with you, Nûr Jehan!’ said I; ‘where are you going in such haste by yourself?’
‘May your kindness never be less, Aga Hajji48, answered she; ‘I am bound to the druggist’s for our Cûrdish slave.’
‘What! Zeenab?’ exclaimed I, in great agitation. ‘What has befallen her? Is she sick?’
‘Ah, poor thing,’ replied the good negro girl, ‘she has been sick and sorry too. You Persians are a wicked nation. We who are black, and slaves, have twice the heart that you have. You may talk of your hospitality, and of your kindness to strangers; but was there ever an animal, not to say a human creature, treated in the way that this poor stranger has been?’
‘What have they done to her? For God’s sake tell me, Nûr Jehan!’ said I; ‘by my soul, tell me!’
Softened by my manner, and by the interest which I took in what she said, she informed me, that in consequence of the jealousy of her mistress, Zeenab had been confined to a small back room, whence she was prohibited stirring; that the treatment which she had received had occasioned a violent fever, which had brought her to the brink of the grave, but that her youth and strength had enabled her to overcome it: and now that she was quite recovered, her mistress began to relent, and had permitted her to use the khena and the surmeh,49 which she was about to procure from the druggist. But she was sure that this indulgence would never have been granted, if the report had not been spread, that it was the Shah’s intention to pay Mirza Ahmak a visit; and as it is his privilege to enter every man’s harem at pleasure, and to inspect his women unveiled; her mistress, who wanted to make as great a display of slaves and attendants as possible, had released Zeenab from the confinement of her room, in order that she should wait upon her: but she was still restricted to the walls of the secret chamber.
I was relieved by this intelligence, and began to turn in my mind how I could manage to obtain an interview; but such insurmountable obstacles did I foresee, that, fearful of entailing fresh miseries upon her, I determined to remain quiet for the present, and to follow the poet’s advice —‘to fold up the carpet of my desires, and not to prowl round and round my inclination.’
In the meanwhile, the day of the Shah’s departure for his usual summer campaign approached; and, according to custom, he passed the intermediate time in visiting the noblemen of his court, and thereby reaping for himself and his suite a harvest of presents, which every one who is distinguished by so great an honour is obliged to make.
Nûr Jehan’s intelligence to me was true: the king had selected Mirza Ahmak as one of those to whom he intended the honour of a visit; for the doctor had the reputation of being rich, and he had long been marked as prey fit for the royal grasp. Accordingly, he was informed of the day when this new and special proof of favour would be conferred upon him; and as a most distinguishing mark of it, he was told, that it should not be an ordinary visit, but that the doctor should enjoy the satisfaction of entertaining his majesty: in short, the king would take his shâm,50 or dinner, at his house.
The doctor, half elated with the greatness of the distinction, half trembling at the ruin that awaited his finances, set to work to make all the necessary preparations. The first thing to be settled was the value and nature of the pah-endaz.51 This he knew would be talked of throughout the country; and this was to be the standard of the favour in which he stood with his sovereign. His vanity was roused on the one hand, and his avarice alarmed on the other. If he exhibited too much wealth, he would remain a mark for future exactions; and if he made no display, his rivals in consequence would treat him with contempt. He had not deigned to consult me for along time, and I had dwindled into a mere hanger-on; but recollecting the success which had attended my negotiation with the European doctor, he called me again into his councils.
‘Hajji,’ said he, ‘what is to be done in this difficult case? I have received a hint, that the king expects from me a considerable pah-endaz, and this from the lord high treasurer himself, whose magnificence on such occasions is the theme of wonder throughout the whole of Persia. Now, it is impossible that I can rival him. He insisted, that I ought to spread broad cloth from the entrance of the street to where the king alights from his horse; that there he should tread upon cloth of gold, until he reached the entrance of the garden; and from thence, the whole length of the court to his seat, a carpet of Cashmerian shawls was to be extended, each shawl increasing in value, until the one upon the musnud, or carpet of state, which should be of an extraordinary price. Now, you know I am not the man to make such display: I am a hakîm, one of the learned: I make no profession of riches. Besides, ’tis plain that the lord high treasurer only says this, because he has cloth, brocades, and shawls to dispose of, which he wishes me to take off his hands. No, it is impossible that I can listen to his extravagant proposals. What then is to be done?’
I answered, “Tis true that you are a hakîm; but then you are the royal physician; you hold a situation of great consequence: besides, for the sake of the lady, your wife, you are bound to do something worthy of such an alliance. The king will be displeased if you do not receive him in a manner that will show your sense of the confidence he reposes in you.’
‘Yes,’ said the Mirza, ‘and that may all be very true, friend Hajji; still I am but a doctor, and cannot be supposed to have all these shawls, brocades, and stuffs by me whenever I want them.’
‘But what can you do otherwise?’ replied I; ‘you would not strew the road with jalap, and spread his majesty’s seat with a blister plaster?’
‘No,’ said he; ‘but we might strew flowers, which, you know, are cheap; and perhaps we might sacrifice an ox, and break plenty of bottles full of sweetmeats under his horse’s feet.52— Would not that answer?’
‘It is impossible,’ exclaimed I; ‘if you act thus, the Shah, and your enemies, will devise means to strip you as naked as my hand. Perhaps there is no necessity to do all the lord high treasurer advises; but you might spread chintz in the street, velvet at the alighting spot, brocade in the court yard, and shawls in the room; that will not be very expensive.’
‘You do not say ill,’ said the doctor: ‘I might perhaps manage that. We have chintz in the house, which was intended for the women’s trowsers; that will probably do. A patient gave me a piece of Ispahan velvet the other day; I can sell my last dress of honour for some brocade; and two or three of my wife’s shawls will suffice for the room. By the blessing of Ali, that is settled.’
‘Ah, but the harem,’ exclaimed I; ‘the Shah must go there. You know it brings good luck to be looked at by the king, and your women must appear well-dressed on the occasion.
‘Oh, as for that,’ said the doctor, ‘they can borrow; they can borrow anything they like from their friends — jewels, trowsers, jackets, shawls — they can get whatever they want.’
Not so, said my lady the khanum. As soon as this arrangement was mentioned to her, she protested against it; she called her husband a low born, niggardly carle; one unfit for the honour of possessing her for a wife; and insisted upon his conducting himself on this occasion in a manner worthy of the high distinction that was about to be conferred upon him. It was in vain to contend against her; and therefore the preparations were made upon a scale far exceeding what the doctor had intended; and every individual of his house appeared to be actuated by only one feeling, that of making him refund all that money which he so long and so unpitifully had extorted from others.
(From a Persian painting.)
47 [ Light of the world. The Persians are apt to give high- sounding names to their slaves, and particularly to the guardians of their women.]
48 [ Aga is used in the sense of master.]
49 [ The surme is a collyrium.]
50 [ The sham is, in truth, the evening meal, and is served up at sunset.]
51 [ The ceremony of the pahendaz consists in spreading rich stuffs for the king to walk upon.]
52 [ This is an ancient Persian custom, and is supposed to secure good fortune — sweetness, and consequently sugar, being an emblem of felicity.]
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:58